The findings, published in JCI Insight, suggest that those allergic to common ingredients like peanuts and shellfish may no longer have to fear eating food that could cause dramatic symptoms.
The technique is based around erasing the memory of immune cells, known as T-cells. These typically form a memory that is resistant to treatments. But using gene therapy, the team were able to desensitize the immune system and provide permanent protection.
“When someone has an allergy or asthma flare-up, the symptoms they experience result from immune cells reacting to the protein in the allergen,” Professor Ray Steptoe, who led the research, said in a statement.
“Our work used an experimental asthma allergen, but this research could be applied to treat those who have severe allergies to peanuts, bee venom, shellfish, and other substances.”
In their research, the scientists took blood stem cells and then inserted a gene to regulate the allergen protein. They found that the memory of allergies with regard to immune response could be deleted. So upon re-exposure to an allergen, a response can be stopped in its tracks. Rather than stopping the response itself, the research stops the disease before it can mature.
At the moment, the research is in the pre-clinical phase, meaning it has not been tested in humans. The team instead applied it to mice with a specific asthma allergen and found it was able to prevent allergic responses. The next step is to test it on human cells in the lab.
“Kids with peanut allergies, for instance, could go to school without any fear of being contaminated from other kids’ food,” Professor Steptoe said in a video describing the findings.
Eventually, the scientists hope people with potentially lethal allergies could be treated via a single injection, as simple as getting a flu jab from your doctor, giving permanent protection. This could replace short-term treatments that some allergy sufferers currently require.
It’s estimated that at least five more years of laboratory work will be needed before human trials can be considered, with the ultimate goal of a single one-jab treatment at least 10 or 15 years away. If it turns out to be as good as it sounds, this could be groundbreaking research for allergy sufferers.
“With further development for clinical application, this could provide a highly effective immunotherapy for established allergic diseases,” the team wrote in their paper.