As many as 10.2 percent of American adults have eczema.

Characterized by itchy red patches of skin, eczema is frustrating and painful. It’s also something of a mystery; for decades, researchers have tried in vain to find the cause of the dermatological disease.

Of course, there are many eczema treatments on the market, and some are extremely effective, but all current treatments aim to diminish outbreaks—not to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

But there may be good news for eczema sufferers. A recent study may show the cause of the disease, which could potentially lead scientists to a cure.

The study, undertaken by researchers at Newcastle University, found evidence that eczema is caused by a missing protein.

Eczema patients do not have the protein, called filaggrin, in their skin. The study’s author believes that this is the sole cause of eczema, and that by studying the protein, researchers might be able to come up with a cure.

“We have shown for the first time that loss of the filaggrin protein alone is sufficient to alter key proteins and pathways involved in triggering eczema,” said Nick Reynolds, dermatology professor at Newcastle University and the lead author of the groundbreaking study. It should be noted that the researchers from Newcastle University collaborated with scientists at Stiefel, a pharmaceutical company, to complete their work.

“This research reinforces the importance of filaggrin deficiency leading to problems with the barrier function in the skin and predisposing someone to eczema,” Reynolds said.

In researching the relationship between eczema and filaggrin, Reyolds’ team built a functional model of human skin in their laboratory.

They then modified their artificial skin to remove filaggrin.

By creating this artificial deficiency, scientists were able to see how the skin’s behavior changed; biological processes were altered substantially, and when exposed to chemical irritants, the skin reacted in the same way that the skin of an eczema sufferer would react.

This seems to show that the protein is definitively linked to eczema and its symptoms. It may serve an essential role in skin health, allowing the skin to react to stress and irritation without dermatological outbreaks.

“This latest research from Newcastle is crucial as it expands on our knowledge of how filaggrin impacts on other proteins and pathways in the skin, which in turn trigger the disease,” said Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists to the Independent.

“This type of research allows scientists to develop treatments that target the actual root cause of the disease, rather than just managing its symptoms.”

Given the level of suffering eczema causes, this is a pivotal piece of research.”

Next, scientists will attempt to replicate the results of the study. They’ll then need to determine whether filaggrin can be introduced artificially, and whether that process would have significant side effects. A cure for eczema is certainly a long way off—but the researchers at Newcastle University believe that it’s within range.

For people with eczema, this is welcome news. At its most severe, the disease creates life-altering symptoms.