Now’s the time for new discoveries to treat food allergies (guest viewpoint) – MassLive.com
The rapidly advancing pace of medical discovery is everywhere around us: A vaccine developed in mere months will put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us; new oncologic therapeutics give cancer patients ever-greater chances of remission; high-tech joint replacements give a new lease on life to those suffering from orthopedic illnesses and injuries. Yet one area of medicine – food allergies – has seen little in the way of major scientific advances despite affecting the health and well-being of millions of Americans.
Food allergies are diagnosed with a version of a scratch test first used in the mid-1800s and have proven resistant to most therapies. The most effective tool we can give patients is an EpiPen for the administration of a lifesaving dose of epinephrine if they go into anaphylactic shock – a severe reaction that can result in death – after exposure to the allergen.
As both a physician and a parent of a child with food allergies, I know that we can and must do better. We need more effective treatments but we really need more research – and funding to support studies – into how and why foods prompt the body to react in the first place. We need to discover the root causes rather than relying on emergency responses.
Food allergies affect as many as 32 million Americans and result in one emergency room visit every three minutes. Anaphylactic reactions recently soared by 377% across a decade in the U.S. alone. A far less scientific method points to the severity of the problem: Go to any child care provider and look at the EpiPens in their possession and peanut bans in their policies.
Food allergies not only are terribly restrictive on patients, but in the case of children they provoke great anxiety on the part of parents. In addition to the greatly diminished quality of life, the hospitalizations that in some cases result from allergic reactions utilize precious resources and add cost to our health care system.
Developing new therapies for food allergies is highly complex, which is the main reason so few have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The complexity lies in the very nature of food allergies.
The human immune system is designed to protect us from harm. Certain foods, however, can cause the immune system to go haywire. When we have a food allergy and consume the allergen, a complex biologic reaction occurs. Neurons in the gut produce neuropeptides that interact with other cells. The immune and nervous systems then detect the allergen and trigger an allergic effect.
Reactions can be as mild as a cough or inflammation – or as severe as anaphylactic shock. Once you have been diagnosed with an allergy as a child, it is impossible to know whether even a mild allergy can become severe, and for that reason, all diagnosed food allergies require that patients be prescribed an EpiPen as a precaution.
Solving the food allergy puzzle will require a broader and better understanding not only of the digestive, immune and nervous systems, but also the human microbiome, of which scientists have only recently begun to better understand.
One thing the science community has established is the deep connection between the gut and the brain. Discoveries made for new food allergy therapeutics will potentially have applicability for many other conditions, including neurologic, gastrointestinal, metabolic and inflammatory disorders.
Five years ago, a group of parents, including myself, resolved to create new therapies that not only would treat food allergies but potentially prevent them from occurring in the first place. We envisioned entirely new methods of diagnosis and treatment. We chose to incubate the Food Allergy Science Initiative at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and just this month re-launched as a new independent organization.
We currently fund research at 19 labs at some of the world’s finest medical and scientific institutions. In the next five years, we have a goal of raising an additional $50 million to support our network of more than 100 scientists across multiple disciplines who have taken on the challenge of food allergies.
I hope for a day not far off when children and adults with food allergies can experience every type of food and can live without the threat of a severe reaction. Until then, we must resolve to decode highly complex systems and look for hints that will help lead the way.
Christine Olsen, M.D., a radiation oncologist, is a founder and the executive director of the Food Allergy Science Initiative.
Published at Thu, 25 Feb 2021 11:03:35 +0000