Millions of allergy sufferers around the world were treated to good news earlier this month. A new study out of Australia’s University of Queensland published in JCI Insight, promises the potential of a one-time injection that will permanently turn off the immune response to allergens. At this point, the research has been limited to asthma, but scientists are hopeful that it can be applied across the board for a host of other allergies, such as peanuts, bee pollen, shellfish and other foods that sometimes trigger life-threatening reactions.
As the scientists were working on blood stem cells, they discovered that the trigger memory that produces an autoimmune response to allergens could actually be deleted. By using gene therapy they could, in essence, erase the memory of the immune cells, and as a result, eliminate the response to the allergen when the allergic person is next exposed to it. According to lead scientist Professor Ray Steptoe, asthma attacks or allergy flare-ups are based on our immune cells’ reaction to the protein that resides in the allergen. Desensitizing the immune system could protect us against allergens for the rest of our lives.
This is good news especially for children suffering from peanut allergies. Peanuts are commonly found in a wide variety of popular foods, and in some cases, just to the smell of peanuts can activate the allergy. These circumstances have precipitated laws in schools across America that forbid bringing peanuts or peanut products to school. If there is a viable mechanism that could prevent the allergic response from occurring, kids and parents would be able to breathe easily, no longer having any fear of peanuts in the classroom.
To date, the study has been conducted only on mice with asthma. The next step will be to test the procedure on human cells. According to the research team, roughly five more years of laboratory testing are required in order to produce a procedure that is suitable for human trials. If all goes well, in the 2020s allergy sufferers will be able to the doctor’s office only once and simply get a shot similar to a flu shot which will protect them against allergic reactions for the rest of their lives.