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NZ Govt invests in Malaghan research to help Generation A

24 August 2012

New Zealand has a problem and it’s not mollycoddled kids, or over-zealous parents - generation A, the allergy generation has been born.

The prevalence of allergy and food allergies in particular, continues to increase unabated and we still do not really understand why. What’s more, this new generation appears less likely than its predecessors to outgrow their food allergies, making allergy a substantial public health issue worldwide.

Yesterday, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce announced that Malaghan Institute allergy researchers Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom and Prof Graham Le Gros would receive $869,282 over the next two years from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s 2012 science investment round, to develop immune technologies for anti-allergy ingredients.

Dr Forbes-Blom says that the major impediment to improving outcomes for allergy sufferers is the current lack of knowledge about what sets off the allergic immune response, and why it happens only in certain individuals.

Food allergies occur when the immune system, which normally serves to protect us against parasites, viruses and bacteria, mounts an attack against harmless food components such as proteins. The immune system has to first be ‘sensitised’ before it will react to the food proteins, and it is this early sensitisation phase of the allergic immune response that has been the focus of Dr Forbes-Blom and Prof Le Gros’ Health Research Council of NZ funded research over the past couple of years. 

“We will use our MBIE funding to build upon our current scientific expertise in this area and apply it to the food innovation industry,” says Dr Forbes-Blom.

Central to this work is a novel food allergy sensitisation model developed by Dr Forbes-Blom, which she is using to reveal for the first time the earliest cellular and molecular events that take place during the development of the allergic immune response in the gut. 

“This unique model doubles as a diagnostic tool that we can use to test future food concepts (such as improved infant formulas) to see if they activate the allergic immune response,” she says. “In doing so we can rapidly and effectively screen for food products that have low allergenicity, while at the same time gain a greater understanding about which food proteins are more likely to activate the allergic immune response in susceptible individuals.”

These investigations will address an important gap in food allergy research and will have clear application for developing improved hypoallergenic and anti-allergy functional foods from New Zealand’s biological resources.

Image caption: Malaghan Institute Allergy Researchers Marcus Robinson, Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom and Prof Graham Le Gros.