ST. LOUIS – Inside a lab at Washington University School of Medicine, researchers inject a protein into the spine of a mouse. For the next 30 minutes, without anything touching its skin, the mouse feverishly grooms and scratches.

“You can actually go into the spinal cord and activate an itch receptor and mice will feel itching,” said anesthesiologist Zhou-Feng Chen.

Chen’s discoveries are sparking new research in the genetic causes of itch, which had long been regarded as a less intense version of pain rather than a disease.

To build on Chen’s work, the university has launched the Center for the Study of Itch — a multidisciplinary center to study and eventually treat itching.

“There are many pain centers around the world, but we believe this will be the first center to focus on itch exclusively,” said Chen, who will direct research at the center.

Despite millions of people who suffer with itch due to a variety of conditions — liver and kidney disease, cancer, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, allergic reactions, medication side effects — little research has been done to understand why. Antihistamines can be effective in some cases, but most cases of chronic itch are resistant to antihistamine treatment.

Because of the complex causes of itch, the center will bring scientists and clinicians together from different fields, including dermatology, neurology, immunology and anesthesiology.

“The new center should help speed the pace of discoveries into the basic, biological causes of itch and quickly translate them into more effective therapies,” said Dr. Larry Shapiro, dean of the school of medicine.

Six years ago, Chen was surprised to discover a gene that sends only itch signals while trying to find genes related to pain in the spinal cord. The gene — gastrin-releasing peptide receptor — was the first itch-specific receptor to be identified.

Further research by Chen has suggested that itch and pain signals do not travel along the same pathways. His findings have opened the door to the study of itch at the molecular level, much like other diseases, using animal models.

“Chronic itch is a disease of the nervous system manifested in the skin, but we understand very little about basic mechanisms and effective treatments,” Chen said.

Research at the center will involve inducing different types of chronic itch in mice, trying to determine what pathways the itch signals travel and testing drugs to block those pathways.

Researchers also plan to collect skin samples and genetic histories from patients who itch to create a database that can be a resource for identifying any susceptibilities to itch.