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Emollients didn’t prevent atopic dermatitis in high-risk infants

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Disappointing findings come as a surprise

The “null findings” of these two studies were “unexpected,” Kirsten P. Perrett, MBBS, Phd, and Rachel L. Peters, PhD, of the department of population allergy at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Parkville, Australia, wrote in an accompanying editorial. They noted that emollients are used regularly in the management of atopic dermatitis, where they help maintain the skin barrier and reduce the need for anti-inflammatory therapies.

These two large prevention studies were “prompted” by the results of small, proof-of-concept pilot studies, which “provided strong efficacy signals for the hypothesis that daily emollient use could prevent atopic dermatitis,” they wrote. But the two studies “found no evidence that daily emollient use in either a population-based or high-risk cohort of infants during the first year of life could delay, suppress, or prevent atopic dermatitis.” The lower incidence of atopic dermatitis among those in the dietary and emollient combination, compared with controls (5% vs. 8%) in PreventADALL, could be a chance finding.

The large, randomized Prevention of Eczema by a Barrier Lipid Equilibrium Strategy (PEBBLES) trial is ongoing to confirm results from a small study suggesting the efficacy of a ceramide-dominant emollient. But the PreventADALL study showed low compliance, suggesting that this intervention, if effective, a twice-daily emollient regimen may be tough to implement. “At this stage, emollients should not be recommended for the primary prevention of atopic dermatitis in infants,” they concluded.

Dr. Perrett and Dr. Peters declared no competing interests. Their comments appeared in the Lancet (2020 Feb 19. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736[19]33174-5).



The use of skin emollients early in infancy and early introduction of certain foods failed to prevent atopic dermatitis (AD) in infants, including those at high risk, in two new clinical trials.

The BEEP (Barrier Enhancement for Eczema Prevention) study compared the rates of AD among infants identified as at risk of AD because of family history who had daily applications of emollients (Diprobase cream or Doublebase gel) for the first year of life, compared with a standard skin care group. PreventADALL (Preventing Atopic Dermatitis and Allergies in Children) is a randomized, primary-prevention study conducted in Norway and Sweden that randomized infants into one of four groups: controls whose parents followed regular skin care advice and nutrition guidelines; those who received skin emollients (the addition of emulsified oil to their bath and application of facial cream on at least 4 days a week from age 2 weeks to 8 months); those who received early complementary feeding of peanut, cow’s milk, wheat, and egg introduced between aged 12 and 16 weeks; and a group that combined both the emollient and diet interventions.

Neither of the studies, published in the Lancet, found statistically significant differences in AD rates between the intervention and control groups.

The results put a damper on hopes raised by previous studies that included two small pilot studies, which found that daily use of leave-on emollients in infants considered at high risk of AD prevented the development of AD (J Allergy Clin Immunol 2014 Oct;134:824-30.e6; J Allergy Clin Immunol Oct 2014;134:818-23).

“It was maybe a little bit overly hopeful to think that we could just moisturize and prevent such a complex disorder,” Robert Sidbury, MD, chief of dermatology at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said in an interview. He emphasized that the studies only addressed emollients as a preventative, and that “there’s no question that emollients are still critical for the therapy of eczema.”

Bruce Brod, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, suggested that homogeneous patient populations or insufficient numbers might explain the negative findings. PreventADALL drew patients from Norway and Sweden, while BEEP recruited from the United Kingdom. “They’re important studies, but I think they still lend themselves to further studies with different patient populations and larger groups of patients,” Dr. Brod said in an interview.

BEEP was headed by Joanne Chalmers, PhD, and Hywel Williams, DSc, of the Centre of Evidence-Based Dermatology at the University of Nottingham (England). Håvard Ove Skjerven, PhD, and Karin C Lødrup Carlsen, PhD, of Oslo University Hospital led the PreventADALL study.

The BEEP study randomized 1,394 newborns at 16 sites in the United Kingdom to daily emollient treatment with standard skin care, or standard skin care alone. At one year, compliance was 74% in the intervention group. At age 2, 23% of the intervention group had AD, compared with 25% of controls (hazard ratio, 0.95; P =.61). Skin infections were also higher in the treatment arm (mean, 0.23 per year vs. 0.15 per year; adjusted incidence ratio, 1.55; 95% confidence interval, 1.15-2.09).

“Our study does not support the use of emollients for preventing eczema in high-risk infants, a finding supported by PreventADALL, another large trial using a skin barrier enhancing intervention,” they concluded. Their data “relate only to prevention of eczema and do not directly challenge the practice of using emollients as first-line treatment for eczema.”

In the PreventADALL study, 2,397 newborn infants born between 2015 and 2017 were randomized to one of the four groups. Use of facial cream and emollients during bathing began at 2 weeks, and early complementary feeding of peanut, cow’s milk, wheat, and egg at 3-4 months. The frequency of AD at aged 12 months in the control group was 8%, compared with 11% in the skin-intervention group, 9% in the food-intervention group, and 5% in the combined-intervention group.

These differences were not statistically significant, and “the primary hypothesis that either skin intervention or food intervention reduced atopic dermatitis were not confirmed,” the authors wrote. Parental atopy did not influence the effects of the interventions. Their results were in line with the BEEP results, and the authors “cannot recommend these interventions as primary prevention strategies.”

The researchers will continue to follow children until age 3 years to evaluate the food allergy rates, if the combined-treatment group experiences a long-term benefit. Adherence to the protocol was poor, with 44% compliance with the facial cream application and 27% compliance with bathing emollients; 32% fully adhered to the diet protocols.

The studies were funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment (BEEP); and a range of public and private funders (PreventADALL). One author of the PreventADALL study disclosed receiving honoraria for presentations from several pharmaceutical companies, and one author received honoraria for presentations from Thermo Fisher Scientific; the rest had no disclosures. Dr. Sidbury has been an investigator for Regeneron. Dr. Brod had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCES: Chalmers JR et al. Lancet. 2020 Feb 19. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32984-8; Skjerven HO et al. Lancet. 2020 Feb 19. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32983-6.

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