Scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, studying the effects of the compound found that it actually kills off the cells which are the cause of the problem. The team believe the discovery represents a major step towards enabling the design of better treatments for psoriasis, which affects up to a million people in the UK alone, according the Psoriasis Association.
The study considered the compound, dithranol, which is widely used in the treatment of psoriasis and is derived from a natural compound called chrysarobin. Chrysarobin is prepared from the araroba tree found in the rain forests of the Amazon. In India, the same substance is known as Goa powder.
Psoriasis is a genetic condition which, when triggered by certain factors such as injury or throat infection, leads to an over-production of skin cells called keratinocytes, which causes a thickening of the skin, resulting in the raised red, scaly patches characteristic of psoriasis.
Many leading personal care companies, such as US-based Nutrogena, market product lines that are specifically formulated to help tackle sensitive skin conditions - and in particular psoriasis.
The team of scientists, led by Professor Nick Reynolds and Dr Mark Birch-Machin, of the Skin and Environmental Interactions Research Group in the School of Clinical and Laboratory Sciences at the University, studied the effects of dithranol - an ointment applied to the surface of the skin - which is used in the treatment of severe cases of psoriasis.
Professor Reynolds said, "Psoriasis is what is known as a relapsing/remitting condition, which means that sufferers don't display the symptoms all of the time. Dithranol is a very effective treatment for episodes of psoriasis and it has been around for a long time, since the early 1900s. By studying the action of the drug, we wanted to gain a better understanding of how it works, to give us an insight into the mechanism of the condition."
Laboratory studies showed that dithranol, when used as a topical treatment, very quickly targeted skin cells' mitochondria - the part of a cell from which it draws its energy - causing the cells to die within 24 - 48 hours of the application of the drug, through a process of programmed cell death.
Professor Reynolds added: "Although dithranol is a very effective and safe treatment for psoriasis, its widespread use is limited because it is quite difficult to use and causes dark brown stains on clothing and bedding. Also, if it is not used properly, it can cause irritation or burning to the skin around the affected area, so it is most commonly used in hospitals, where the application of the ointment can be overseen by a nurse."
Because of this, most people suffering an episode of psoriasis that requires treatment with dithranol have either had to attend hospital as an outpatient for treatment.
Professor Reynolds believes that his team's findings could lead to a far more effective and manageable treatment of psoriasis - one that could be conveniently home-administered in both over-the-counter and prescription products.
"These findings represent an important step towards the development of better-designed treatments for psoriasis sufferers," he said.