One question inspired Erik Wambre, PhD, to dedicate his career to allergy research.
“Why can most people eat peanuts without a problem, but some people have a serious reaction to just a small amount?” he says. “What makes one person allergic and not another?”
Dr. Wambre’s research focuses on what causes allergies and how to stop them — including a key discovery of a cell type called TH2A that drives all allergic diseases. His team recently contributed to testing PALFORZIA, a treatment intended to help people who are allergic to peanuts gradually reduce their sensitivity to them.
“Having severe peanut allergies can mean constant fear — what if your child mistakenly eats a peanut on an airplane and has a life-threatening reaction?” Dr. Wambre says. “This therapy can help lessen that fear.”
How Palforzia Works
Allergies happen when your immune system responds aggressively to something harmless (like a peanut). For food allergies, the current standard of care is to avoid the things you react to. But this is difficult because allergens like nuts and soy are in so many foods — and some people experience severe reactions to even small amounts of them.
Scientists learned that gradually exposing the immune system to tiny bits of an allergen can make people less sensitive to it. Dr. Wambre teamed up with a company called Aimmune to test a treatment using this approach. They ultimately developed PALFORZIA, which in 2020 became the first FDA-approved oral immunotherapy for people age 4 to 17 with a peanut allergy.
“Immune cells still react to peanuts. But over time, they get tired and their response gets weaker,” Dr. Wambre says, “This can reduce the frequency and severity of allergic reactions. And that’s life-changing for people who live in fear of accidental exposure.”
Learning More, Aiming for Cures
Dr. Wambre and his team are now involved in multiple studies building on the success of PALFORZIA. BRI received funding from the National Institutes of Health and FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) to investigate the specific cells affected by the drug and the exact process it uses to curb allergies. Studies like this (called mechanistic studies) can shed light on who a therapy will work best for and improve overall understanding of a disease.
Dr. Wambre’s team also worked with the Immune Tolerance Network (a global research network based at BRI) to further examine which patients might respond best to immunotherapy for peanut allergies, who might experience side effects and how long one needs to take the therapy to have a long-term benefit.
“We found that younger participants and those with fewer TH2A cells at start of therapy had the best response to immunotherapy,” says Dr. Wambre, who expects to publish findings later this year.
Dr. Wambre’s team will continue to explore new allergy treatments. He’s hopeful that further study of TH2A cells could fuel an even bigger breakthrough.
“Right now, the best way to treat allergies is one at a time, little by little. But TH2A drives all allergies. If we could figure out how to knock out TH2A cells, we could target all allergies at once,” Dr. Wambre says. “That could cure a lot of people.”
This was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Powering Possibilities newsletter.
April 11, 2022
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