A Lesson in Tolerance for Allergy Sufferers

A promising treatment could one day eliminate allergic reactions, by reprogramming the body's "patrol cells" to tolerate certain foods.


In the time it takes you to read this post, at least one person will have gone to the emergency room because of a food allergy.

Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan hope to decrease that number. They’ve designed a cell-based treatment to re-educate your body so it doesn’t overreact to harmless foods.

Don’t shoot the messenger

It all starts with dendritic cells. These are your body’s patrol cells, continuously scouting for foreign invaders. When they find something, they rush to the lymph nodes to tell all the other immune cells. This usually leads to an immune response, causing symptoms like an itchy mouth, hives, vomiting, or, in the case of severe allergy, even death.

But dendritic cells don’t just turn on the immune response, they can also teach the body to be tolerant. It was this feature of dendritic cells that John Gordon, a Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Co-chair of the Immunology Research Group, wanted to harness. In order to do this, the Gordon group collaborated with fellow University of Saskatchewan researchers Dr. Donald Cockcroft and Dr. Beth Davis, as well as the Canadian Food Allergy Strategic Team (CanFAST), headed by Dr. Ann Clarke at the University of Calgary and Professor Jean Marshall at Dalhousie University.

Inducing tolerance

The team found that by mixing dendritic cells with an allergen, like a peanut protein, and a small molecule called retinoic acid, the dendritic cells were programmed to tolerate that allergen. When these cells were introduced into mice with peanut allergies, they taught the mice to be tolerant, reducing allergic reaction to peanuts by 84-90%. Similar results were obtained with egg white proteins.

“If we were able to successfully reverse allergen sensitivity in humans, that would be life changing for affected individuals,” says Gordon.

But we might still have to wait a while before such treatments are ready for human testing. “It’s an interesting approach with interesting results, but the issue of curing food allergy is premature,” says Dr. Susan Waserman, a Professor of Medicine at McMaster University who was not involved in the study.

Waserman notes that the mouse model used in this study did not have a very severe allergy, so it remains to be seen whether this treatment would work in extreme cases. She is also curious about the duration of the effect.

Still, there is great potential for this type of immunotherapy, and not just for food allergies. Theoretically, any disease where the immune system attacks something harmless is fair game. This includes asthma, essentially an allergic reaction to airborne allergens, or even multiple sclerosis, where your immune system attacks the protective sheath that surrounds nerve cells.

Maybe one day, peanuts won’t be so scary and inhalers will be a thing of the past.

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.