The ground-breaking research, led by UQ Associate Professor Ray Steptoe, could ultimately cure life-threatening allergies such as asthma, peanuts, bee venom, and shellfish.
Dr Peter Anderson, CEO of the Asthma Foundation of Queensland and New South Wales, says more than 2 million Australians have asthma, and more than half of those are regularly burdened by the disease.
— Aust Science Channel (@RiAus) June 2, 2017
Can gene therapy cure allergies?
Professor Ray Steptoe explains the ‘turn off’ immune response.
“When someone has an allergy or asthma flare-up, the symptoms they experience results from immune cells reacting to protein in the allergen,” he said.
“The challenge in asthma and allergies is that these immune cells, known as T-cells, develop a form of immune ‘memory’ and become very resistant to treatments.
“We have now been able ‘wipe’ the memory of these T-cells in animals with gene therapy, de-sensitising the immune system so that it tolerates the protein.”
Dr Steptoe said the findings would be subject to further pre-clinical investigation, with the next step being to replicate results using human cells in the laboratory.
“We take blood stem cells, insert a gene which regulates the allergen protein, and we put that into the recipient.
“Those engineered cells produce new blood cells that express the protein and target specific immune cells, ‘turning off’ the allergic response.”
What comes next?
The eventual goal of the research, according to Professor Steptoe, would be a single injected gene therapy.
This would replace short-term treatments that currently exist to target allergy symptoms with varying degrees of effectiveness.
“We haven’t quite got it to the point where it’s as simple as getting a flu jab, so we are working on making it simpler and safer so it could be used across a wide cross-section of affected individuals,” he said.
“At the moment, the target population might be those individuals who have severe asthma or potentially lethal food allergies.”
The research is funded by the Asthma Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Dr Peter Anderson of the Asthma Foundation says that while effective treatments are currently available, patients still face a number of obstacles and challenges in their self-management practices.
“The Foundation welcomes the findings of this research and looks forward to a day in the future when a one-off treatment may be available that has the potential to eliminate any experience of allergies in vulnerable patients,” said Dr Anderson.