Allergic diseases such as asthma, food allergy, eczema and allergic rhinitis (including hay fever) are caused by an overreaction of the immune system to harmless environmental triggers. In fact it is only one part of the immune system that seems to be activated – the so-called Th2 immune response that normally functions in protecting against parasitic worm infections.
Asthma is the world's most common chronic disease in children and its prevalence in New Zealand is amongst the highest in the world, affecting approximately 20% of 6 to 14 year olds. Food allergies are also on the rise, particularly amongst children, and in serious cases can lead to food-induced anaphylaxis and death. In developed countries, around 10 to 20% of children will experience eczema at some point during childhood, with the majority of cases occurring before the age of five.
How the Malaghan Institute is tackling Asthma & Food Allergy
The treatment of immune-mediated diseases of excessive immune activation, such as asthma and allergy, usually involves the use of non-specific immune suppressive agents such as corticosteroids. Although effective at inhibiting the undesired immune response to allergens, these treatments are non-specific in their mechanism of action and can leave patients more susceptible to common infections such as influenza.
Understanding the signals that trigger the initiation of allergic responses is critical for the identification of specific treatments that selectively suppress only the allergic immune response. Surprisingly, little is known about these signals but scientists at the Malaghan Institute hope to change this by using allergic murine models, immunological assays and structure/function analyses to generate much needed information in this poorly understood field.
The majority of the Institute's asthma and allergy research is undertaken in Prof Graham Le Gros' Asthma & Allergic Diseases Research Group. A postdoctoral research fellow in this group, Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom, specialises in the study of food allergy and is currently developing unique laboratory models for understanding the early events in the allergic immune response. Other senior research group leaders involved in asthma and allergy research at the Malaghan Institute include Prof Franca Ronchese, Dr Bridget Stocker and Dr Jacquie Harper.
Important outcomes of this work will be the development of generally applicable vaccines and therapies for the treatment of individuals with established disease, and the identification of improved immunological markers for monitoring human airway inflammation and allergy.
AgResearch Ltd Hamilton, Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd, Foundation for Research, Science & Technology, Harry & Beverley Romanes, Health Research Council of New Zealand, Marjorie Barclay Trust, Maurice Wilkins Centre, New Zealand Lottery Health Research, Rex & Betty Coker Scholarship, The Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund, Wellington Medical Research Foundation