1 November 2022

UCPH research fights life-threatening infections in lymphoma patients


Skin lymphoma can lead to severe and even deadly infections. New research from the University of Copenhagen paves the way for prevention.

patient holding hand
Photo: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash.com

Some patients suffering from severe lymphoma of the skin develop severe and life-threatening infections accompanied by pain and itching.

These infections are a result of skin breakdown which allows bacteria to penetrate the skin barrier. Bacteria then leak into the blood, leading to blood poisoning and other severe conditions.

Previously, the scientists did not know why this particular type of cancer causes the skin to break down.

Now researchers from the University of Copenhagen has shown that lymphoma cells emit specific substances that cause the skin to break down. But that is not all. They have also identified a drug that can prevent the breakdown.                

“This discovery is a crucial step in cancer research. In the long term, we will be able to arrest the spread of skin cancer and prevent the life-threatening infections caused by the disease. This will lead to improved diagnoses and quality of life for patients,” says Professor Niels Ødum, who has headed the project at the LEO Foundation Skin Immunology Research Center.

The researchers have come a long way towards implementing their results in treatment. The drug able to stop the breakdown of the skin is called JAK inhibitors – and they have already been approved and introduced in the market, though for treating other skin conditions and some types of arthritis.

“This means that we do not have to start over when it comes to testing the drug. We expect to be able to offer the drug to patients in a test environment to see whether it works as expected,” says Niels Ødum.

In the study, the UCPH researchers headed by PhD Student Maria Gluud have cooperated closely with Professor Lars Iversen and his team at the Department of Dermatology at Aarhus University Hospital and Staff Specialist Maria Rørbæk Kamstrup from the Department of Dermatology at Bispebjerg Hospital.

Hopefully to benefit patients sooon

In the study, the researchers analysed two types of lymphoma of the skin: mycosis fungoides, which is the most common form found in just under 50 per cent of all cases of lymphoma, and the rarer type called Sézary Syndrome.

They were able to outline the behaviour of the cancer cells and learned how to prevent them from affecting the skin.

“It is a ground-breaking result. It is the first time ever we have seen a method for stopping the breakdown of the skin barrier, which hopefully can help ease the symptoms of the disease,” says Niels Ødum.

In their study of the cancers, the researchers received tissue samples of cancer-infected skin from lymphoma patients. They also received samples of healthy skin from cancer patients taken from skin still unaffected by the disease. Finally, they performed analyses on so-called artificial skin, that is, 3D skin models consisting of human skin cells. 

They then compared these samples with tissue samples from healthy patients and found that the same principles apply across the different sample types.

“Basically, we have identified the substances produced by the cancer cells and the substances produced by the surrounding cell environment. We have used this to explain why the skin suddenly changes and stops producing the protective layer it is usually covered by,” Niels Ødum explains and continues:

“This has enabled us to conclude that the serious infections found in these patients are most likely a result of the breakdown of the skin barrier.”

“This leaves us with an important part of the explanation for the breakdown of the skin. And we know that broken skin leads to all kinds of ailments. We have also identified potential paths to preventing this breakdown.”

The skin barrier is a protective layer made up of various especially tough proteins, including filaggrins. They help keep the skin cells – and thus the skin – together and sealed, preventing e.g. bacteria from getting through.  

The researchers hope to be able to launch an experiment in the near future to test the new discovery on patients, and hopefully their work will soon come to benefit the patients.

Read the full study here.

The study was funded by the LEO Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Danish Cancer Society (Knæk Cancer) and the Independent Research Fund Denmark.


Professor Niels Ødum
+45 28 75 78 79

Press Officer Søren Thiesen
+45 28 75 29 34