Halting life-threatening allergies by targeting newly discovered cell

Published: Sep. 11, 2018 at 4:09 PM EDT
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The CDC says more than 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from allergies.

Fifteen million are allergic to foods, which can be life-threatening. Now researchers have a target for developing treatments and better diagnoses.

Franny Hall’s peanut allergy has gotten worse since her first reaction to peanut butter in the first grade.

“My throat, it closes, like bit by bit, and yeah, it’s just really hard to breathe,” she explains.

Franny carries an EpiPen everywhere she goes, and she's had to use it. It’s tough for the whole family.

“You worry about what happens if this occurs to her and all the catastrophic things that can happen when you have anaphylaxis,” says Franny's dad, Tim Hall.

Erik Wambre’s discovery of the TH2A cell could be a big step toward stopping allergies like Franny’s. Now researchers can target the cell, which only appears in people with allergies.

“If we can destroy or block the cells, these cells, you should have an improvement in your symptoms,” Wambre explains. He's a principal researcher at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason.

Now Wambre is part of another study that uses the TH2A cells as a biomarker while participants are slowly exposed to their allergen. The information can tell doctors whether therapy is working or not. Franny is in that trial, and her dad is proud she’s sticking with it.

“This is the hope for you, that you could get better, and if it works for you, it could work for somebody else,” Tim says.

Next up: Wambre will work to find the molecule that will short circuit TH2A cells.

“It’s a dream, but maybe if we find this molecule that would block those cells, we will treat not only one allergy but maybe all of them,” Wambre says.

Franny hopes that’s a dream realized.

A team of researchers at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason got a $5 million NIH grant to accelerate their work to find allergy treatments.

Wambre hopes to expand his study to find unique cancer cells in the blood.




REPORT: MB #4470

BACKGROUND: An allergy is a reaction by the immune system to something, usually harmless. Those triggers, known as allergens, can include pollen, mold, animal dander, certain foods, or things that irritate the skin. At least one in five Americans has allergies. When a person with allergies inhales, swallows, or has physical contact with an allergen, the body makes a protein called IgE which grabs onto the allergen. Then histamine and other chemicals get released into the blood, causing symptoms. People of any age can get allergies. They can develop during adolescence, or symptoms may not appear until adulthood. Allergies run in families. Smoking, pollution, infection, and hormones can also lead to allergies.

(Source: https://www.webmd.com/allergies/allergy-basics)

SYMPTOMS: If the allergen is inhaled, common symptoms include itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, runny nose, and feeling tired or ill. Common symptoms of a skin allergy include rashes and hives. Food allergies can cause stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. If an insect sting was the trigger, a person will have swelling, redness, and pain where they were stung. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Most go away shortly after exposure stops. Moderate symptoms may be comparable to cold or flu symptoms. Allergy symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter and prescription medications, as well as allergy shots. Lifestyle changes like using air filters and avoiding allergens are also important.

(Source: https://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/allergies-treatment-care)

NEW RESEARCH: Food allergies are a growing issue. More and more kids are being affected by this type of disease and there is currently no FDA-approved treatment. Erik Wambre, PhD, Principal Researcher at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason, is investigating how to use the TH2A cell for early detection of these allergies in kids, so parents can be more careful when introducing a potential food allergen to their children. Immunotherapy works very well when the kids are young as their immune system is still open to change (referred to as plasticity). Immunotherapy may need a minimum of three years of treatment, but does not always result in improvement. The TH2A cell as a biomarker can be used to see whether a patient should continue treatment or stop and take a different approach.

(Source: Erik Wambre, PhD)