Four years ago, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientists created a revolutionary process that mimics the immune system. Since then, OMRF researchers have used the process to create illness-fighting proteins known as antibodies to help combat infectious diseases like influenza and anthrax.
With a new pilot grant, OMRF scientists are now aiming this technology at another target: allergies.
Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to allergens like pollen, dust, pet dander and certain foods. The immune system creates antibodies that bind to the allergens and sweep them out of the system.
But a side effect of the reaction creates chemical mediators, such as histamine, which are released into the bloodstream, causing constricted airways, watery eyes, runny noses and more.
Using the technology developed at OMRF, scientist Ken Smith, Ph.D., will make antibodies to common allergy-causing substances in the lab. He will then map the location of the interaction that releases histamine and causes the physical symptoms of allergies.
“For years, we've been using this method to create antibodies to infectious diseases,” Smith said. “The antibodies can be useful for helping people with weakened immune systems or to provide immunity for people going into pandemic-type situations.”
While infectious diseases are still an important focus, Smith said, more than 60 million Americans deal with allergies that adversely affect their quality of life. Some allergies, such as reactions to peanuts or wasp stings, can be life-threatening.
“This is a nationwide problem that affects a staggering number of Americans,” said Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., who is chairman of OMRF's Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Program. “As a country, we spend an estimated $4.5 billion on medications and doctor visits to fight allergies. There is clearly a need for better directed therapies for people with life-altering symptoms, and Smith's research could help us find it.”
Smith recently received a grant from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology to fund the research. “Our ultimate goal is to find better therapies so we can improve the quality of life for those of us who have allergies,” Smith said.
Greg Elwell is a public affairs specialist with OMRF.