Scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia have discovered a new method of using immune cell transfer and genetic engineering that can switch on or turn off people’s reaction to allergies.

This discovery was presented at the World Allergy Congress (WAC) held in Florida, USA – ahead of World Allergy Week.

The scientists were able to manipulate the immune response which triggers allergy symptoms in mice. An allergic response is typically caused by immune cells, commonly referred to as T-cells, reacting to a protein in an allergen. The challenge lies in the fact that T-cells can become resistant to treatments over time.

According to Head of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at UCT and Allergy Advisor to Pharma Dynamics, Associate Professor Jonny Peter, the researchers essentially found a way to silence the allergic inflammation in mice with a form of immune transfer and gene therapy allowing the immune system to become tolerant of previous allergens, such as egg protein, as opposed to viewing it as a threat.

“Animal experiments such as these give us a glimpse of what may be possible for the human immune system. The ability to re-programme the immune system of allergy sufferers to be tolerant is the Holy Grail. Currently, available immune therapies take at least three years of daily treatment and may not provide lifelong benefits. These therapies are currently only available for inhaled allergens like house dust mite and not for life-threatening food allergies,” said Prof Peter.

“If translated to humans, this research would be a game-changer. However, mice are not human, and translation has a long way to go. Furthermore, this work focused on allergic airway inflammation, while food allergy mechanisms may be different. Human trials are expected to start in about five to six years, and only time will tell whether it is a viable option,” continued Prof Peter.

To build on the evidence which supports gene-based approaches in tackling allergic disease, other conference experts presented research related to the mechanisms used to pinpoint the various genetic components that can cause allergies.

Prof Peter said that up to now progress on this front has been slow and expensive, due to the lack of high throughput technologies to investigate genetic variation in a large enough sample of patients.

“Fortunately, costs are coming down, technologies are improving and global consortiums are developing to allow for bigger Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which makes it possible for researchers to investigate large numbers of common variants spanning the entire genome in allergic- and non-allergic patients. These studies, together with next generation sequencing to identify rare gene defects in severe allergy individuals, will likely continue to improve our understanding of the genes responsible for a range of allergic diseases, including those for allergic rhinitis, asthma and atopic dermatitis,” said Prof Peter.

“In the future, we will likely see sequencing in the clinic. The next frontier will then be to understand the additional layers of complexity provided by epigenetics and the interaction between genetics and the environment, especially the microbiota,” continued Prof Peter.

In South Africa alone, an estimated 30% of the population suffer from allergic rhinitis (inflammation in the nose, which occurs when the immune system overreacts to allergens in the air), while 40% suffers from asthma.

The effect of climate change on pollen allergy and respiratory allergic diseases was also at the forefront of the conference discussions. Although scientists are sketchy on exactly how climate change will impact respiratory allergies, they say the extreme weather events of the past decade have resulted in massive changes in our climate to which biologic systems on all continents are reacting – something that doctors and allergy-sufferers should keep a close eye on.

A conference data presentation indicated that in a survey of allergy rhinitis sufferers, 51% of patients blamed pollution for their worsening symptoms, while 80% incriminated climate change.

Prof Peter said there is some evidence of significantly stronger allergenicity in pollen from trees growing at increased temperatures and that climate change may affect air pollutant levels, such as tropospheric ozone (O3), but a lot more research is needed, before firm conclusions can be made.

Another recent survey conducted among 1,184 doctors who belong to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) confirmed that most doctors are witnessing medical problems caused by climate change among their patients. Nearly two-thirds reported a need for increased care for allergic sensitisation and symptoms following exposure to plants or mould.

“The rate at which allergic diseases and asthma are increasing worldwide, is alarming. The World Allergy Organisation (WAO) reports that worldwide sensitisation to allergies in the environment is present in up to 40% of the population. These disorders significantly impair a patient’s quality of life. Apart from chronic sneezing, nasal stuffiness and a post-nasal drip making them more susceptible to colds and flu, sufferers also complain of fatigue, memory loss, weakened physical and social functional and depression, hence the intense focus on developing safe and effective therapies for the future,” said Prof Peter.

“World Allergy Week not only allows us to raise local awareness of allergic diseases, but to also share new insights into preventing and managing allergic conditions. For now, there is no silver bullet that can treat each and every symptom, but antihistamines, decongestants and other treatments should offer relief, and immunotherapy should be considered. Thankfully international research shows a promising future for treating and possibly even preventing (certain) allergies all-together,” concluded Prof Peter.

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