Anyone with allergies can tell you how miserable they can be. From annoying seasonal sniffles to life-threatening food allergies, they affect an estimated 50 million people in the U.S. alone, and we still don’t know exactly how they work.
But scientists at Seattle’s Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) seem to have found the key: a kind of cell that only people with allergies have.
The cell is a specialized form of Th2, an immune cell that helps the body fight off invaders like bacteria or viruses. It’s also the cell that causes allergic reactions when the body tries to fight off allergens like pollen, peanuts or pet dander.
Researchers led by Dr. Erik Wambre have been studying these cells for seven years, and they discovered that people with allergies have a specialized type of Th2 cell that people without allergies don’t have. They call it Th2A.
“For the first time, BRI researchers have identified and are able to target a unique type of cell that causes allergies. Up until now, we couldn’t easily identify the ‘bad guy’ cells triggering allergies from the ‘good guy’ cells protecting the body,” Dr. Steven Ziegler, the head of BRI’s immunology research program, said in a statement. “This makes allergy research much more straightforward and opens the door to therapies that could target this common enemy and transform treatment.”
The scientists studied people with six common allergies — peanuts, grass pollen, mold, cat dander, tree pollen and dust mites — and found that the specialized cell played a role in all of them. The cell gave them a window into how allergies work: for example, those with seasonal grass pollen allergies had higher rates of the cell during pollen season.
And for those with peanut allergies, the amount of the cell decreased as they were exposed more and more to peanuts. As their cell count lowered, they became less allergic.
That example points to one of the discovery’s important uses: measuring how allergic people are and whether or not their allergy treatment is working.
“This is the first time we’ve had a way to accurately measure the allergy process and assess whether therapies are working,” said Wambre, who led the research, in a statement.
It also opens the door to allergy treatments that target this cell, conceivably leading to more effective allergy treatments or even a cure for all sorts of allergies. Of course, such a cure would be many years down the line, but the discovery of the new cell is a promising starting point.