Suffering from seasonal allergies, food allergies, or even allergies to animals can make a person feel like a prisoner. Being restricted in the things you can do and places you can go can be quite a nuisance. But this may all change, as new immunology research aims to provide life-long protection from severe allergies through gene therapy.
Gene therapy is designed to introduce genetic material into cells to compensate for abnormalities or to provide a benefit. Essentially, this form of therapy can modify the function of genes.
Researchers at The University of Queensland found they were able to “turn off” the immune reaction that leads to the symptoms of an allergic reaction. While this has only been achieved in animal studies, it is a big leap toward eventual human studies.
Our innate defense
Our bodies are amazing organisms and have a built-in defense mechanism. It serves to protect us from harmful organisms that could make us sick. But in people suffering from allergies, this defense mechanism confuses non-harmful invaders, such as pollen, as harmful. This leads to an increased production of antibodies that release chemicals causing allergy symptoms.
It is estimated that about 50 million Americans suffer from some type of allergy, some of which are life-threatening. Approximately 200 people die each year from anaphylaxis in the U.S., which is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
Through the use of gene therapy, the research team was able to stop this immune reaction.
“The challenge in asthma and allergies is that these immune cells, known as T-cells, develop a form of immune ‘memory’ and become very resistant to treatments. We have now been able ‘wipe’ the memory of these T-cells in animals with gene therapy, desensitizing the immune system so that it tolerates the protein. Our work used an experimental asthma allergen, but this research could be applied to treat those who have severe allergies to peanuts, bee venom, shellfish and other substances,” said Dr. Ray Steptoe, who led the research team.
The team’s research is only in the pre-clinical stage, but the next steps include testing on human cells in the laboratory. They hope to take blood stem cells and insert a gene that regulates the allergen protein and targets specific immune cells, “turning off” the immune response.
The researchers admit that there’s a lot of work to do before the therapy will reach the masses. However, they’re hard at work.