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Breakthrough Approach to Allergy Treatment

Researchers from the University of Notre Dame and Harvard University have announced a breakthrough approach to allergy treatment that inhibits food allergies, drug allergies, and asthmatic reactions without suppressing a sufferer's entire immunological system. The therapy centers on a special molecule the researchers designed, a heterobivalent ligand (HBL), which when introduced into a person's bloodstream can, in essence, out-compete allergens like egg or peanut proteins in the race to attach to mast cells, a type of white blood cell that is the source of type-I hypersensitivity (that is, allergy). The new work is published as the cover article of the September 23, 2011 issue of Chemistry & Biology. "Unlike most current treatments, this approach prevents allergic reactions from occurring in the first place," says Dr. Basar Bilgicer, senior author of the paper and assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry and Biochemistry and principal investigator in Notre Dame's Advanced Diagnostics & Therapeutics initiative. Michael Handlogten, lead author on the paper and a graduate student in Dr. Bilgicer's group, explained that among the various chemical functionalities he analyzed to be used as the scaffold in HBL synthesis, ethylene glycol, an FDA-approved molecule, proved to be the most promising. Mast cells are part of the human body's defense against parasites (such as tapeworms), and, when working normally, they are attracted to, attach to, and annihilate these pathogens. But type-I hypersensitivity occurs when the cells react to non-threatening substances. More common allergies are due to ambient stimulants, and an allergic response may range from a mild itch to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Dr. Tanyel Kiziltepe, a research professor in Advanced Diagnostics & Therapeutics, adds that "anaphylaxis can be caused by certain food allergens, insect stings, antibiotics, and some medicines, and we believe HBL has a very high potential to be developed as a preventative medication." While many medicines treat allergies by weakening a person's entire immune system, the new approach only disrupts the process whereby white blood cells bond with allergens in the first place. "It also does not leave patients open to an increased risk for infections or the development of cancers," explains Dr. Bilgicer. "HBLs may be most useful in situations where it's not possible to speak to or gauge someone's sensitivity. For example, in an emergency, on a battlefield, or in a remote location, doctors may not be able to ask a patient about an allergy before administering penicillin. An engineered HBL could be given along with the medicine and perhaps prevent a deadly reaction from occurring." [Press release] [Chemistry & Biology abstract]