BRI Group Photo

In 2010, Erik Wambre, PhD, made a discovery that had the potential to reshape how allergies are studied, diagnosed and treated. Researchers had always thought each allergy was caused by a different “bad guy” cell. But Dr. Wambre, a molecular biologist at the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI), identified a type of cell that appeared to trigger all allergies.

It was a finding that could turn allergy research on its head and help improve treatment for millions of people. But Dr. Wambre needed to be sure it was true – and he needed help.

Confirming a significant discovery often means running a series of follow-up studies that look for more evidence. This can take years and funding, and require a team of researchers, research assistants and lab technicians.

“This teamwork is integral to BRI’s culture,” Dr. Wambre says. “We value everyone’s ideas and everyone has a chance to make key contributions – whether they’re an entry-level assistant or a senior staff scientist.”

But, as a researcher at the beginning of his career, Dr. Wambre didn’t have much funding to build a team. So he needed an assistant who could be a research Swiss army knife. That’s where Veronique Bajzik stepped in.

Looking for a “Smoking Gun”

Headshot of Veronique BajzikVeronique earned a master’s degree in immunology in her native France, then worked for several years as a research technician, research associate and clinical research coordinator before moving to the United States.

When Dr. Wambre hired her in 2013, she immediately went to work analyzing blood samples from the BRI biorepository – some samples were from people with allergies, others were from people who didn’t have allergies. Then Veronique went looking for the smoking gun that would show if Dr. Wambre’s discovery was true.

This revolved around analyzing a specialized cell called TH2. These cells help protect the body against parasites and bacteria. But when Dr. Wambre was looking at TH2 cells in people with grass pollen allergies in 2010, he noticed something unusual about some of them: They expressed a molecule called CD161.

“I thought my machine made an error – immune cells aren’t supposed to express this molecule,” Dr. Wambre says.

As he dug deeper, he came to suspect that TH2 cells that express CD161 are actually a unique type of cell that drives how the immune system reacts – or overreacts – to allergens. Veronique’s job was to look for CD161 on cells from people with a wide array of allergies.

"I was doing everything I could to prove Erik’s theory, while he tried to get more grants to support our work,” Veronique says.

Game-Changing Evidence

Veronique began by analyzing the blood of patients who were exposed to a peanut allergen. Sure enough, she found TH2 cells that expressed CD161 in every patient who was allergic to peanuts. And she found that the cells were entirely absent in people who didn’t have peanut allergies.

Still, she needed more data. So Veronique and Wambre’s growing team investigated whether these unique cells were involved in dust mite, cat and mold allergies. In each study, Veronique received blood from patients, isolated specific blood cells called peripheral blood mononuclear cells, and ran them through a process called flow cytometry that helps distinguish different cell types.

Then she tracked the cells, analyzed the data, calculated statistics and even produced PowerPoint presentations to share this data.

One by one, the dominoes fell. Veronique and her colleagues ultimately found the specialized cells, which they named TH2A, in people with six different allergies.

They also discovered that the number of TH2A cells goes down as patients become more tolerant of allergens.

“It was so exciting to be there from the beginning, and to be involved in every aspect of research that could potentially have such a big impact,” Veronique says.

Hope for Combatting Peanut Allergies

Thanks to Veronique and her colleagues, Dr. Wambre’s lab accumulated enough evidence to be confident that the cell is the key player in the body’s allergy response. When they published their findings in 2017 in the journal Science Translational Medicine, it caught the attention of scientists worldwide for its potential to reshape how allergies are diagnosed, treated and monitored.

Take peanut allergies, which are one of the most feared allergies, especially for children. The prevalence of peanut allergy has increased more than threefold in recent years. But no one understands why and there is no FDA-approved treatment for peanut allergies – or any food allergy.

The Th2A discovery could change that. Researchers can now pursue therapies that potentially disarm Th2A cells and stop allergies. They can also use Th2A cells to measure the allergy process and assess whether therapies are working. And this model could be applied to many other allergies.

“If the Th2A cells turn out to be a target for new treatments, it could change lives," Veronique says. "Helping people in this way would be the greatest reward.”

Fighting Diseases

July 18, 2018

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