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July 31, 2017

Connecting the Dots Between Allergies and Autoimmune Disease

At first glance, allergies and multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes may seem more different than similar.

When picturing autoimmune disease, you may imagine your body targeting cells in your pancreas or the protective sheath around your nerve cells - your immune system going on “the attack” against your tissues. Your cells become invaders in your own body.

With allergies, on the other hand, the "villains" conjure images of something entirely more familiar and every day, like.....peanuts. Pollen. Shell fish. Cat dander.  In other words, your body flagging harmless environmental allergens, or substances, as dangerous and then going on the offense.

Erik Wambre

Benaroya Research Institute predominantly focuses on the more than 80 autoimmune diseases 1 in 15 Americans live with, but another area of growing research expertise is allergies because where many people see differences, BRI’s researchers see parallels.

“They are all connected,” Erik Wambre, PhD, principal investigator, says of the relationship between the two. “It’s a mistake of your body’s own immune system, whether it’s autoimmunity or allergy.”

And when it comes to how the body reacts to these two types of attacks?

Steven F Ziegler

"It's a different flavor of response,” according to Steve Ziegler, PhD, Director of the Immunology Research Program at BRI. “In autoimmunity, there is a different type of T-cell involved than in allergies. In an autoimmune response, tissue destruction occurs. With allergies, the immune system overreacts to harmless allergens. Interestingly, this is the same type of response that expels viruses, parasites, and bacteria from the body.”

Despite challenges, such as understanding how the role genetics plays varies between the two responses, Dr. Ziegler is feeling optimistic about where research is going and states there have been “incredibly strong strides” made in dealing with allergic responses.

“There are very good drugs on the market now that target different aspects of allergic responses very specifically, and they actually work,” he said. “Importantly, they tend not to have a lot of side effects and so can be used widely.”

But like eliminating autoimmune disease, eliminating allergies is considered a daunting - though not impossible – task. Only with allergies, there is an added challenge thrown in.

“In autoimmunity, there is one set of genes that is dominant over everything else, which is a huge determining factor in whether you get a disease or not,” Dr. Ziegler added. “There's nothing like that in allergies. There is no single gene or gene family that you can point to and say, ‘If we can target these guys, half of allergy will disappear.’”

Yet other linked characteristics hint at a future where discoveries can be made through researching immune responses in people living with multiple autoimmune diseases or several allergies.

“Between SLE (lupus) and multiple sclerosis (MS), if we understand why people develop SLE, it will then be easier to understand why they develop MS,” Dr. Wambre said. “Same thing with allergies. If we understand why you are allergic to food, then maybe that will help to understand why you are also allergic to pollen.”

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