News Journal Allergy Clin Immunol JACI
January 23, 2012

BRI Discovers How Allergy Shots Influence Immune System to Prevent Allergic Response

Findings May Lead to Safer, More Effective, Faster Treatment

Discovery Published Online in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

A team of researchers at Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) at Virginia Mason Medical Center recently discovered how allergy shots steer the immune response to prevent allergies. These findings open new horizons for understanding allergic diseases and improving safety and efficacy of current allergy shots. The research results were recently published online in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

"Allergy shots (allergy vaccine therapy) were introduced 100 years ago and remain the only curative treatment for certain types of allergies," says Erik Wambre, PhD, BRI Principal Investigator and lead author of the study. "But scientists haven’t clearly understood how the immune system works to rid the body of the reaction to allergens.

"Scientists thought that allergy shots strengthened the part of the immune system which controls the overacting allergic cells," says Dr. Wambre. "But we fou nd instead that the allergy shots cause repeated stimulation to the allergic immune cells and they become worn out and die." This is a very important finding because scientists will use this information to develop better treatments for allergies.

Researchers at BRI, including Dr. Wambre, William Kwok, PhD, and David Robinson, MD, Virginia Mason Allergy and Asthma Clinic, are taking a new approach to improve allergy vaccine therapy. "The drawback to current therapies is that they can take months to years to work," says Dr. Wambre. "In some cases, the allergy shots may also cause life-threatening symptoms such as low blood pressure and anaphylactic shock."

BRI researchers are using tetramers — biomarkers discovered at BRI — to identify the piece of the allergen molecule (peptide) that causes a person to react. "Using this small part of the allergen avoids the adverse reactions that can occur when the whole allergen is utilized," says Dr. Kwok. "Tetramers are also employed to monitor patients and understand the immune responses that lead to allergic reactions."

"Allergies can range from mild to severe," says Dr. Robinson. "For some people they can compromise quality of life and even be life-threatening. This research is aimed at finding better ways to help these patients with less side-effects and risks."

More than 25 percent of Americans, or 70-75 million people, suffer from allergies and asthma and these numbers are increasing. Symptoms range from coughing, sneezing and a runny nose to rashes, hives, lower blood pressure, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks and even death.

Allergies and asthma occur when the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance (allergen) that usually is considered harmless to the body. The allergen is eaten, breathed into the lungs, injected or touched. People can have an allergic reacti on to a wide variety of substances including tree, grass, and weed pollen, mold and dust mites, cat and dog dander, food such as milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish, drugs such as penicillin and venom from stings.