By Upasana Bhattacharjee
Funded by The Asthma Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), immunology research at the University of Queensland led by Associate Professor Ray Steptoe has been able to “turn off” the immune response that leads to allergic reactions in animals. This could result in a treatment for humans that would provide life-long protection from allergies.
While the optimism reflected by the Australian research team about these findings has been massive, experts have shown scepticism because of the fundamental differences between the operations of human and animal bodies.
Making T-cell ‘forget’
Allergies are caused by immune cells reacting to the proteins in allergens. These immune cells, known as T-cells, often become resistant to treatments because they develop immune ‘memory’ of the allergens. The new experiments have successfully ‘wiped’ this immune memory in T-cells in mice. Thus, by desensitising the immune system, the reaction against the proteins in allergens could be avoided.
A future one-stop treatment
Treatments for such allergies are usually short-term ones which chiefly target the allergy symptoms. The eventual goal of this research would be a single injected gene therapy targeting the allergy itself. Blood stem cells would be injected with a gene that regulates the allergen protein. The stem cells would then be administered to recipients, resulting in the production of new blood cells (through the engineered cells) that are able to turn off the allergic response.
While the trials in the study used an experimental asthma allergen, there is potential to apply this research to treat severe—and often fatal—allergies to peanuts, shellfish, bee venom, and other substances. The road ahead for this research holds further pre-clinical trials that use human cells in laboratories and try to replicate these results.
Reason for healthy scepticism
Experts are of the opinion that the team has been overly optimistic about its results. The difference between the human and mouse model has not been adequately accounted for, thus making statements to the effect of declaring a permanent cure for allergies gives false hopes to patients. The research still has many years of pre-clinical trials before it can be launched. Further, the treatment has to be simplified and made safer to ensure that it can launch on a large scale. Despite this scepticism, the research has been credited as a novel step.
Genetic engineering has become a huge component of medical research today. This research at the University of Queensland is one such development in the field of genetic engineering. Despite the problems of adapting the findings to the human body and making it accessible to a wide section of the population, the results are promising. While years of experiments await the researchers, the field of medicine and genetic engineering before a life-long treatment of allergies and asthma is possible, these findings could indeed prove to be the ‘holy grail’ of medical treatment.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
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