Scientists Figured Out Which Cells Trigger Your Allergies

A research team from Seattle hopes to help millions say goodbye to watery eyes and runny noses of allergy season. They isolated the cells that trigger our bodies' reactions to allergens, and hope to one day be able to block those responses entirely.
Megan Ray Nichols

Allergy season heralds the beginning of itchy eyes, running noses and sneezes that just won’t quit. We're living on allergy medication anytime there's some pollen in the air outside or some dust mites inside — and don’t even get us started on pet dander. However, those medications give us little hope for relief. Researchers in Seattle are hoping to change that with a discovery that might provide more clues to allergy triggers, enabling doctors to develop better treatments in the future.

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How Many People Suffer From Allergies?

To someone without allergies, they might not seem like much of a problem. To the 20 million individuals who were diagnosed with hay fever last year, it’s a recipe for misery.

Scientists have known for a long time that allergies are caused by a problem with the immune system — something in your environment triggers your immune system, like the way it reacts when you encounter a virus or bacteria that might make you sick. This could be due to food that you eat, things that your skin comes into contact with or irritants in the air.

Until now, the only way to diagnose allergies was with a skin “prick” test — dermatologists will pierce your skin with a needle coated with the possible allergen and study how you react.  It can be extremely uncomfortable, especially if an allergy is discovered.

Discoveries in Seattle

Allergies might be an immune reaction, but researchers in Seattle may have finally identified the “bad” immune cells that cause allergic reactions. A group from the Benaroya Research Institute found a way to tell the difference between the good immune system cells that fight disease and the bad ones that cause allergies. People who have allergies have a higher number of these bad immune system cells causing their symptoms.

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With this discovery comes a new possible treatment for allergies. Traditional allergy treatment focuses only on treating the symptoms caused by these bad cells — antihistamines are used to treat runny noses and sneezing. Now that these bad immune cells can be identified, a treatment is in the works to either stop or remove these bad cells from the body — treating the root of the problem rather than just throwing medication at the symptoms.

This treatment would initially require a series of blood tests to monitor the level of harmful immune cells in the patient’s body. Once treatment begins, this becomes the best way to ensure that the treatment is effective.

The primary researcher is patient zero for a lot of the tests — after years of immunotherapy, his blood no longer contains the bad cells that used to cause his seasonal allergies. It’s taken a while to find a way to tell the difference between good and bad cells — it took these researchers seven years and hundreds of blood tests — but the science is promising.

This same technique is also potentially beneficial for food allergies like those caused by peanuts — this allergy alone affects 3.3 million people every year and causes approximately 150 deaths annually.

This treatment will still face years of clinical trials before it becomes available to the public, but it’s a great step in the right direction when it comes to the treatment of allergies. If we're quite honest, it's the first step that's been taken in any direction when it comes to allergy research in many years.

Allergy sufferers, cross your fingers that these clinical trials finish quickly because this has the potential to eliminate allergies instead of just treating the uncomfortable symptoms every allergy season. No more Benadryl comas — just a few blood tests and a life free of allergies.

You can read more about the team's research through the journal Science.