In vitro models for investigating itch.


Itch (pruritus) is a sensation that drives a desire to scratch, a behavior observed in many animals. Although generally short-lasting and not causing harm, there are several pathological conditions where chronic itch is a hallmark symptom and in which prolonged scratching can induce damage. Finding medications to counteract the sensation of chronic itch has proven difficult due to the molecular complexity that involves a multitude of triggers, receptors and signaling pathways between skin, immune and nerve cells. While much has been learned about pruritus from in vivo animal models, they have limitations that corroborate the necessity for a transition to more human disease-like models. Also, reducing animal use should be encouraged in research. However, conducting human in vivo experiments can also be ethically challenging. Thus, there is a clear need for surrogate models to be used in pre-clinical investigation of the mechanisms of itch. Most in vitro models used for itch research focus on the use of known pruritogens. For this, sensory neurons and different types of skin and/or immune cells are stimulated in 2D or 3D co-culture, and factors such as neurotransmitter or cytokine release can be measured. There are however limitations of such simplistic in vitro models. For example, not all naturally occurring cell types are present and there is also no connection to the itch-sensing organ, the central nervous system (CNS). Nevertheless, in vitro models offer a chance to investigate otherwise inaccessible specific cell-cell interactions and molecular pathways. In recent years, stem cell-based approaches and human primary cells have emerged as viable alternatives to standard cell lines or animal tissue. As in vitro models have increased in their complexity, further opportunities for more elaborated means of investigating itch have been developed. In this review, we introduce the latest concepts of itch and discuss the advantages and limitations of current in vitro models, which provide valuable contributions to pruritus research and might help to meet the unmet clinical need for more refined anti-pruritic substances.