BRI Receives $2.2 Million to Discover Biomarker that Triggers Allergies
Scientists at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI) recently received a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to find a unique biomarker that initiates and drives allergies. This grant expands on previous discoveries that led to the isolation of a type of white blood cells that show up only in people with allergic disease.
“We hope to identify a biomarker at the top of the allergic chain reaction that will predict the onset of allergy and will lead to novel vaccine approaches,” says Erik Wambre, PhD, BRI Principal Investigator for the grant. “Our aim is to develop a simple blood test to predict the likelihood of resolution of an allergy during therapy and to identify people who will develop an allergy before the first symptoms are experienced. This is especially important in at-risk people such as children with a life-threatening food allergy.”
BRI investigators will focus on a specific white blood cell, a rare type of T cell, identified in earlier work by Dr. Wambre as a key initiator of the allergic response. T cells are a part of the immune system that orchestrate immune response and that generally protect the body from bacteria, viruses and parasites. But sometimes T cells make mistakes that harm the body such as attacking tissues causing autoimmune diseases or overacting to a foreign substance (an allergen) such as food, pollen or animal dander that in most people is generally harmless. People react to the proteins in these allergens with an antibody that releases chemicals that cause sneezing; itching in the nose, eyes and ears; and in rare cases the life-threatening reaction anaphylaxis.
Allergies are probably the most common immune disease in the industrialized world, affecting about 50 million people in the U.S. and 60 million people in Europe. It is estimated that by 2050 about one in two people will have allergies. These diseases represent a major public health concern in terms of quality of life, drug-related costs or even mortality. The reason for the increase in allergies isn’t known but modern living seems somehow to make people’s immune systems overly sensitive.
“Allergen-specific immunotherapy is currently the only curative treatment in allergies and has been used for the past 100 years,” says Dr. Wambre. “However, this approach doesn’t always work, is only limited to a few allergens at a time and it can take two to five years to build up immunity. Part of the reason for this is that researchers still don’t fully understand the precise mechanism of how allergies work in the body. Until now, there has been no biological measurement to predict who is likely to have these diseases until the development of clinical symptoms. Currently, physicians diagnose allergies based on clinical history and measurement of specific antibodies and skin reactivity to an allergen. However, the diagnosis may not be correct because of the number of variables involved. If we can identify the biomarkers at the beginning of the allergic chain reaction we can get ahead of the symptoms and try to find a therapy that will eliminate the allergy at the first step.”