Seminal discoveries by researchers in the Center for the Study of Itch (CSI) have led to the identification of itch-specific pathways that are unique and distinct from those that mediate pain. Encouraged by this new frontier in itch biology, a plan for creating the CSI was developed by the Department of Anesthesiology and the Division of Dermatology, Department of Medicine. To promote innovative interdisciplinary and inter-departmental translational research, Washington University launched the BioMed 21 initiative with the goal of establishing new Interdisciplinary Research Centers (IRCs). Recognizing the importance of the emerging field, the plan to establish the CSI as one of the IRCs was unanimously endorsed and approved by the Research Academic Committee and ratified by the Executive Faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in 2010. Approximately 7,000 square feet of newly renovated space has been assigned to house the CSI, the first Center of its kind in the world (news).
In 2011, the CSI was formally established as one of the IRCs with Dr. Zhou-Feng Chen as the founding Director and Dr. Lynn Cornelius, the chief of the division of Dermatology, as Co-Director. Dr. Chen’s group identified the first itch-specific receptor in 2007 called Gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) which has led to major advances in our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of itch. At the same time, Dr. Cristina Strong who came from the National Institutes of Health also joined the CSI to bolster its expertise in epithelial biology and skin barrier dysfunction. In June of 2012, Dr. Qin Liu joined the CSI from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Liu is a leading expert in itch biology and discovered a family of G protein-coupled receptors called Mrgprs which represents a novel therapeutic target for itch in patients. In June of 2014, Dr. Hongzhen Hu, a leading expert in transient receptor potential (TRP) channels joined the CSI from University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He has made important discoveries with regard to the function of TRP channels in the context of itch and inflammation on both neurons as well as epithelial cells. In July of 2014, Dr. Brian Kim, a board-certified dermatologist, joined the CSI from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Kim was among the first to identify group 2 innate lymphoid cells (ILC2s) in the skin and identify their contribution to the atopic dermatitis or eczema.
In 2014, Dr. Brian Kim was appointed as Co-Director. Collectively, this highly interactive and complementary team of investigators has placed the CSI at the forefront itch biology by combining neuroscience, epithelial biology, immunology and dermatology in an interdisciplinary and translational fashion. Under the new leadership, the CSI will soon move into clinical trials as new therapeutic avenues arise from basic and translational research.