Hope for Allergy Sufferers

Author:  Merolla Lisa

Date:  August 2007

Scientists at the Institute of Food Research have identified a molecule that could explain why some people are affected by food allergies while others remain allergy-free. Led by Claudio Nicoletti, the scientists determined that a molecule Interleukin-12 (IL-12) plays a key role in resisting food allergies in mice. Published online last month by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, their research could eventually lead to a treatment for food allergies.

The scientists found that IL-12 is absent during allergic responses. While allergy-resistant mice produce the molecule, allergic mice do not. "We have identified the missing molecule that normally keeps immune responses under control and appropriate," explained Nicoletti.

The molecule IL-12 is normally produced by dendritic cells, which are antigen presenters – they present foreign substances to the immune system in a way that influences the body's immune response. In his research Nicoletti compared the dendritic cells in the gut and spleen of allergic and allergy-resistant mice. He found that the dendritic cells in the gut of allergic mice no longer produce IL-12. This suggests that a lack of IL-12 causes the immune system to react in a way that triggers an allergic response.

IL-12 "clearly represents a potential target for the therapy of allergy," Nicoletti continued. He suggests delivering an allergen in the presence of IL-12 to lessen the allergen's effect and control the allergic reaction. Further research is being done to investigate this idea.

This research could have important implications for many people. There is currently no treatment for food allergies, so sufferers must avoid certain foods or risk symptoms such as hives and the life-threatening anaphylactic shock. According to the American Academy of Asthma Allergy and Immunology, 8% of children and 2% of adults in the United States suffer from food allergies.

David Reading, director of the Anaphylaxis Campaign said, "Food allergy can place an extremely heavy burden on the families affected. We welcome this research and look forward to further developments."

- By Lisa Merolla.