Scope 46 - Why food allergy research is a high priority

25 October 2011

Food allergy has been increasing in incidence and prevalence throughout the world and imposes a significant burden of disease and health cost on our community. However,  despite extensive research into the potential genetic or clinical associations of allergic disease, little progress has been made in understanding why. 

Food allergies occur when the immune system, which normally serves to protect us against parasites, viruses and bacteria, mounts an attack on harmless protein components in the food. The resulting allergic reactions can range from mild discomfort to serious and life threatening events, with anaphylaxis (the rapid onset of breathing difficulties, skin reactions, vomiting) the most severe form of food allergy.

There are few treatment options for individuals with food allergy beyond avoiding the allergy inducing food. Some patients might also undergo desensitisation therapy, where they are gradually exposed to the food allergen in a controlled manner to get their immune system tolerant to the protein allergens in the food.  However, this approach is not always effective and the mechanism by which it acts is not well understood. 

Food allergy is not an isolated disorder and is often linked with other diseases in what is described as the allergic march, where one form of allergy manifests to another over a period of time.  For example, children under the age of three who have eczema and food allergy, tend to go on to develop asthma.  Then, as their asthma improves, they can be affected by hay fever in their teenage years. 

Further research on the immune mechanisms involved in controlling food allergy is therefore desperately needed so we can improve the lives of children living with the disorder and halt its progression into other forms of allergic disease as they get older. 

MEET THE ALLERGY TEAM

While the overall research is being supervised and developed by Prof Graham Le Gros, three key members of the investigating team are Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom, Marcus Robinson and Catherine Plunkett.  These three dynamic scientists have been working on various aspects of this project since late 2008 and are all passionate about the work being done.

Project team leader, Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom is excited by the allergy research being undertaken at the Malaghan Institute and says “Allergic diseases have reached epidemic proportions, and we don’t know why. Recently, we established an exciting finding that highlights the changing way we now think about food allergen sensitisation. To be a part of this cutting edge research, in our quest for a cure, is an extraordinary opportunity”.