In 2017, Eric Wambre, PhD, announced he had identified a cell, called TH2A, that appears to cause all allergies – and dozens of media outlets hailed the discovery’s potential to transform diagnosis and treatment.
“Allergies happen when the body overreacts to a substance like pollen or peanuts,” Dr. Wambre says. “We found that TH2A cells help cause this overreaction.”
This opened the door to developing a test that could detect TH2A cells and identify when patients have allergies. Even better, researchers could pursue therapies that target TH2A cells and stop allergies.
It was the sort of breakthrough that scientists like Dr. Wambre dream of, but he knew it would take years to translate it into real-world progress for patients. Fortunately, he and his team are moving fast.
“We’re partnering with pharmaceutical companies to evaluate exciting new allergy therapies,” Dr. Wambre says, “and we’re exploring how drugs can block TH2A cells and maybe stop allergies altogether.”
Replacing the Challenge Test
Much of Dr. Wambre’s current work focuses on peanut allergies. These allergies have grown far more common in recent years, and they’re feared because they can cause life-threatening reactions. But there are no good tests or FDA-approved treatments.
“The only reliable way to know if a patient has a peanut allergy, or if their allergy is getting better, is to do a challenge test that exposes them to the allergen to see how they respond,” Wambre says.
Dr. Wambre’s lab is involved in clinical trials that suggest a TH2A-based test could be an alternative. The trials investigate therapies meant to desensitize people to the peanut allergen. His team has found that the number of TH2A cells falls in patients who respond to the therapies.
Dr. Wambre envisions a day when certain patients won’t need challenge tests – they’ll have their TH2A levels monitored instead. This could tell patients if they truly have an allergy, and if it’s subsided enough for them to worry less about peanut exposure.
TH2A could also be used as a biomarker that helps match patients with therapies that are right for them.
“It could enable physicians to be much more precise about which drugs they give to patients, to make sure they get the right therapy from the start,” Dr. Wambre says.
Another arm of Dr. Wambre’s research is aimed at finding treatments that disarm TH2A cells.
His team is using lab tests to investigate how existing drugs affect these cells. This will help the researchers understand how the cells work, and how to use drugs to block them.
“It will probably be 10 to 12 years before there’s a therapy we can try in people,” Dr. Wambre says. “But we’re learning fast and we’re going to keep investigating until we find something that, hopefully, can help many more people overcome allergies.”
Originally published in BRING IT ON newsletter - Spring 2019
January 24, 2019
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