New Zealand’s asthma and allergy rates are amongst the highest in the world. The Malaghan Institute is researching the underlying genetic and environmental factors that lead to the development of allergic diseases such as asthma, eczema and food allergy to find new ways to target and treat these debilitating conditions.
Allergic diseases like asthma, eczema and food allergy are the result of an overreactive and oversensitive immune system, targeting compounds and molecules that should normally be regarded as harmless such as pollen or peanuts.
Those affected by allergic conditions, especially at a young age, are more likely to develop further allergies as they get older. This is commonly referred to as the ‘allergic march’ – the tendency for allergies to involve other tissues of the body as we age. Investigating whether this process can be stopped or halted at the early stages of the allergic march is a focus of research at the Malaghan Institute.
The Malaghan Institute was the first to provide hard biomedical evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis – that exposure to germs and certain infections is good for preventing allergic disease. Today, it is widely understood that developing immune systems are informed and educated by their external environment, and that a lack of exposure to certain elements, such as germs and food allergen, is a contributing factor to many of the allergic conditions we see today.
Much of what causes a person to develop an allergy is largely a mystery. We’re using advanced genetic and bioinformatic analytical technologies to investigate the subtle changes to a person’s genes as their immune system encounters a potential allergen for the first time, to see whether the process of becoming allergic to something can be halted or circumvented.
Dendritic cells are known as the ‘sentinels of the immune system’. These immune cells are responsible for interacting with our environment, and informing the body on what is safe, and what is potentially harmful. We’re investigating how dendritic cells function, how they determine what is safe and what is harmful, and how we can help these important cells correctly identify potential allergens as harmless.
Certain species of human parasites display a remarkable ability to influence and even modulate the human immune system for their own benefit, dampening down the immune response that would normal destroy them. We’re investigating how these organisms interact with the immune system to achieve this remarkable feat, and whether we can apply the same mechanisms to turn down an ‘overactive’ immune response in diseases like allergy and autoimmunity.