Northern California Science Writers Association

When itch becomes a pain: the biology of touch

  • Tuesday, March 14, 2017
  • 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM
  • Z Cafe, Oakland
  • 12


Just reading about itching makes some of us scratch. To Diana Bautista, that's part of its mystery. A reflex probably meant to protect us from disease-carrying insects, it can get out of hand in chronic diseases like eczema. In her lab at UC Berkeley, where she is an associate professor of molecular and cell biology, she teases out the itch and pain receptors in the skin in hopes of understanding the relationship between pain and itch, and possibly find therapies that lessen the urge to scratch without affecting our ability to detect pain.

Bautista came to the subject through the study of touch receptors, having studied pain with David Julius at UCSF. Focusing on one specific itch receptor, they discovered that a critical part of the receptor is what they dubbed the 'wasabi' ion channel, because it is sensitive to mustard compounds like those found in Dijon or wasabi. She has since found chemicals that block the wasabi channel, and which hold promise as itch relievers.

She also uses a unique creature, the star-nosed mole, to search for the genes that enable receptors in the skin to detect touch and pain sensations. The mole’s snout is ringed by extremely sensitive, fleshy appendages which appear to have no pain receptors, allowing her to isolate the effect of touch receptors from pain receptors. This research has turned up dozens of new pain and touch receptors, many of them found also in humans. She hopes the work will lead to pain relievers that target pain at its source – the skin - rather than systemically.

What she finds could also have implications for cancer patients, who sometimes develop extreme sensitivity to touch, and diabetes patients, who often develop a neuropathy that eliminates their sensitivity to light touch.

In her talk, Bautista will summarize what is known about the biology of itch, touch and pain, share videos of her work with the star-nosed mole, and then focus on her latest research about itch.

WHERE: Z Cafe, 2735 Broadway, Oakland (510-451-2905), a 10 min walk from 19th St. BART

6 pm - Schmoozing

7 pm - Dinner

8 pm - Speaker

Z Café & Bar serves scratch-made American cuisine using the freshest, locally grown meats and produce around the Bay Area. The menu changes seasonally to provide flavors at their peak.

The no-host, cash bar features exciting new alternatives with house cocktails infused with fruits and fresh-squeezed juices. Z Cafe offers over 100 vodka selections and a variety of hand shaken specialty martinis including flavored mojitos.

DINNER MENU: Passed appetizers - Boccocini bruchetta

Buffet with: House salad
Smothered Chicken w/ mushrooms
Primavera Risotto
Sauteed seasonal vegetables

Fresh fruit platter
Assorted cookies

COST: $28 members / $20 students / $48 nonmembers (there is a limit of 60 attendees)

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