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Mast cell chymase is a chymotrypsin-like serine proteinase primarily stored in secretory mast cell granules. Mast cell chymase has various effects on angiotensin, metalloproteases, lipoproteins, procollagen, neuropeptides and cytokines. Recent studies have demonstrated that chymase inhibitors inhibit skin inflammation. In this study we sought to determine the role of mast cell chymase in atopic dermatitis (AD) in comparison with its role in psoriasis and normal skin. Skin biopsy specimens were obtained from non-lesional and lesional skin of patients with chronic AD and psoriasis and from normal skin of non-atopic and non-psoriatic controls. The number of mast cells containing chymase was determined by immunohistochemistry using a chymase-specific monoclonal antibody. A significantly (P<0.05) enhanced number of chymase-positive cells was found in lesional AD skin as compared to normal skin as well as to lesional and non-lesional skin of patients with psoriasis. A significant (P<0.05) increase in the number of chymase-positive cells was also found in non-lesional AD skin in comparison to psoriasis. An enhanced, albeit not statistically significant difference was noted in non-lesional AD skin as compared to normal skin. In conclusion, these results suggest that mast cell chymase may play an integral part in eliciting and maintaining cutaneous inflammation in AD but not in psoriasis. The increased proteinase activity of mast cell chymase may also be involved in promoting a skin barrier defect in AD, which subsequently enhances the skin's permeability to allergens and microbes and thereby aggravates the eczema.