When the body learns to attack something with what is called the adaptive immune system, it typically retains the memory of what it will attack for life. This is part of the theory behind vaccines which makes them work. With parts that are not dangerous but are from a dangerous organism, you can teach the body to recognize and attack the organism. In some cases that feature of our immune system is counter productive, however, such as with autoimmune conditions. Reprogramming white blood cells holds a potential to cure not only deadly allergies, but long term, it might be used to fix other conditions including type 1 diabetes. 

Type 1 diabetes develops when T cells, white blood cells that normally protect the body from various illnesses, get a signal to destroy cells in the insulin-producing areas of the pancreas called islets. 

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The research by Dr Steptoe doesn’t mention this angle, but what he is doing could save many lives by preventing deadly allergic reactions.

A single treatment giving life-long protection from severe allergies such as asthma could be made possible by immunology research at The University of Queensland.

A team led by Associate Professor Ray Steptoe at the UQ Diamantina Institute has been able to ‘turn-off’ the immune response which causes allergic reaction in animals.

“When someone has an allergy or asthma flare-up, the symptoms they experience results from immune cells reacting to protein in the allergen,” Professor Steptoe said.

“The challenge in asthma and allergies is that these immune cells, known as T-cells, develop a form of immune ‘memory’ and become very resistant to treatments.

“We have now been able ‘wipe’ the memory of these T-cells in animals with gene therapy, de-sensitising the immune system so that it tolerates the protein.

“Our work used an experimental asthma allergen, but this research could be applied to treat those who have severe allergies to peanuts, bee venom, shell fish and other substances.”
Dr Steptoe said the findings would be subject to further pre-clinical investigation, with the next step being to replicate results using human cells in the laboratory.”

“We take blood stem cells, insert a gene which regulates the allergen protein and we put that into the recipient.
“Those engineered cells produce new blood cells that express the protein and target specific immune cells, ‘turning off’ the allergic response.”

Dr Steptoe said the eventual goal would be a single injected gene therapy, replacing short-term treatments that target allergy symptoms with varying degrees of effectiveness.

“We haven’t quite got it to the point where it’s as simple as getting a flu jab, so we are working on making it simpler and safer so it could be used across a wide cross-section of affected individuals,” Dr Steptoe said.

“At the moment, the target population might be those individuals who have severe asthma or potentially lethal food allergies.”

Dr Steptoe’s research has been funded by the Asthma Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Council. … The research is published in JCI Insight.

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Journal reference: 

Allergen-encoding bone marrow transfer inactivates allergic T cell responses, alleviating airway inflammation. JCI Insight, 2017; 2 (11) DOI: 10.1172/jci.insight.85742