Professor Franca Ronchese and PhD student Kerry Hilligan

Scope 66 - The allergy story hidden in our genes

30 July 2018, Allergies, Genetics, Immune Cell Biology, Professor Franca Ronchese

Our genetic information tells a complicated story about our relationship with infections. Bacteria, parasites and allergens have been around as long as we have, influencing our immune system and the genes that control its workings.

“We know that allergies tend to run in families, which means that genes that are passed down through generations must be involved,” says Professor Franca Ronchese, head of the Malaghan Institute’s immune cell biology team.

“However, there seem to be many different genes contributing to allergy, and the result is that the combined effect of all these genes together is difficult to predict.” 

Prof Ronchese says that because allergens seem to be hard for our body get rid of, they end up triggering the immune system in multiple ways. We can therefore track how the immune system responds by seeing which genes are stimulated during an allergic reaction.

“Interestingly, we find that the genes that are stimulated can be different depending on which allergen we use. For example, the work of PhD student Kerry Hilligan has demonstrated that certain key molecules (like TSLP and type 1 interferon) both act on the dendritic cells of our immune system, even if they have very different downstream impacts.”

So, while an immune reaction to parasites or to eczema may look very different on the outside, there is a subtle commonality underpinning them. By watching how allergens interact with the immune system, we gain vital clues into how to manipulate this relationship for our collective benefit.