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Gene Therapy To Turn Off Severe Food Allergies & Asthma

Gene therapy might give long-term protection from severe allergies like asthma by simply turning them off, suggests new research published in JCI Insight.

Severe allergies might be turned off with a single intervention, suggests new immunology research conducted by scientists from The University of Queensland (UQ). The team’s main aim is to develop a gene therapy procedure that will be sufficiently effective in one injection only, as an alternative to short-term treatments with varying effectiveness. Existing treatments can be effective for most patients, but the latter also have to deal with many challenges when it comes to self-managing the conditions.

Allergies are immune responses to foreign substances that are otherwise harmless (the allergens, like pollen). For instance, someone with asthma will experience the symptoms thereof because his immune cells have initiated an immune response after detecting specific proteins in the allergen, explains lead author Ray Steptoe from UQ’s Diamantina Institute. Countering this becomes challenging over time because immune cells called T-cells will have developed ‘immune memory’ to resist treatment strategies. Therefore, Steptoe and his team aimed at deleting this memory, and they successfully wiped out the T-cell memory using gene therapy, thereby rendering the immune system more tolerant of the allergen’s protein.

The procedure entailed inserting a gene regulating allergen proteins into blood stem cells which were then put into the recipient. The genetically-modified cells, then, produced new blood cells expressing the allergen protein, and targeted immune cells to turn off the allergic response.

Though an experimental asthma allergen was used for the research, the findings can be applied to severe allergies to peanuts, bee venom, shell fish, among others, says Steptoe.

The technique now has to be refined, and made simpler and safer as well as able to cater for a wide range of allergies. Pre-clinical testing needs to be done, and the experimentation will be reproduced on human cells in laboratory. The first target population might be patients suffering from severe asthma or lethal food allergies, says Steptoe.

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