Gene therapy could wipe immune memory and "turn off" severe allergies
Scientists may be one step closer to discovering a way to genetically "turn off" allergic responses with a single injection. A team of researchers at the University of Queensland has developed a new process that has successfully silenced a severe allergic response in mice, using blood stem cells engineered with a gene that can target specific immune cells.
The big challenge previous allergy researchers faced was that immune cells, known as T-cells, tended to develop a form of "memory" so that once someone developed an immune response to an allergen, it would easily recur upon future contact. The key was finding a way to erase that "memory" response to the protein in the allergen causing the immune reaction.
"We take blood stem cells, insert a gene which regulates the allergen protein and we put that into the recipient," says Professor Ray Steptoe, explaining the new process developed by his team at The University of Queensland. "Those engineered cells produce new blood cells that express the protein and target specific immune cells, 'turning off' the allergic response."
The team's initial clinical investigations looked at an experimental asthma allergen, with the new process found to successfully terminate established allergic responses in sensitized laboratory mice. While the initial research has focused on a very specific asthma allergen, Professor Steptoe believes the process could be applied to many other severe allergic responses, such as peanuts, bee venom and shell fish.
The long-term goal of the research would be to develop a therapy that could cure specific allergies with a single injection, much like a vaccine.
"We haven't quite got it to the point where it's as simple as getting a flu jab," says Professor Steptoe, "so we are working on making it simpler and safer so it could be used across a wide cross-section of affected individuals."
The team is realistic about the time it will take before this discovery results in practical benefits for allergy sufferers, with at least five years more laboratory work needed before even human trials can be conducted. But this new discovery could mean that, within 10 or 15 years, asthma and other lethal allergic responses might be eliminated with a single, one-time treatment.
The findings were recent published in the journal JCI Insight.
Watch Professor Ray Steptoe from The University of Queensland discuss his team's findings in the video below.
Source: The University of Queensland