Allergies afflict around 50 million people in the US. It is estimated that around 40 percent of American children and up to 30 percent of American adults have an allergy. What is more, epidemiological studies suggest that the number of people who suffer from allergies is increasing year on year. As such, many scientists have been focusing their efforts on developing not just more effective treatments for allergies, but outright cures for them.
In early June 2017, new findings were published from a study conducted at the University of Queensland, which suggested that a cure for numerous types of allergies had in fact been found. This cure is gene therapy.
‘Switching off’ allergies
The vast majority of allergies are genetic, scientific research into immunology has suggested. This is also the reason why so many allergies are linked, as they share the same genes. If you are allergic to nuts, you are also more likely to be allergic to other substances, such as pollen, for instance. Building on what we have already known for decades about the genetic derivation of allergies, scientists at the University of Queensland aimed to see if they could ‘switch off’ the genes that caused specific allergies. Their reasoning was this: if the gene causing an allergy can be ‘deactivated’, so can the allergy – the symptoms and sensitivities associated with that allergy will disappear.
Manipulating T cells
The lead researcher of the project Dr Ray Steptoe explained just how ‘switching off’ an allergy might work. Steptoe explained that genes contain cells known as ‘T cells’. They are crucial objects of study in the field of immunology because they are vital to the workings of the immune system. T cells have what is known as ‘immune memory’ – i.e. they remember both substances and chemicals that have triggered an allergic reaction (for instance, the chemicals in bee venom, a common allergen) and the chemical substances that are used to treat allergies (such as antihistamines).
Unfortunately, this immune memory can hinder the progress of allergy sufferers. As more and more immune memory builds up in a T cell, the person’s immune system will become more sensitive to allergens and more resistant to allergy treatments. What Steptoe’s team has tried to do is to find a way to ‘wipe’ the immune memory off these T cells, which essentially switches off their sensitivity to allergens and their resistance to allergy treatments.
Thus far, the results have been shown only in animals, and it remains unclear if the treatment can be transferred to humans.