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Cell suspects in skin allergies identified

25 Jun, 2013

An international team, including three researchers from Wellington’s Malaghan Institute, has discovered a type of immune cell in the skin that may be the culprit behind allergic skin diseases.

These newly identified cells are currently known in medical circles as ‘group 2 innate lymphoid cells’ (ILC2).

The research, published in the journal Nature Immunology, shows that the cells, while performing an important function defending against skin infections, could also run amok and drive skin allergy responses in experimental models.

Cutting-edge cell analysis

In a press release from the institute, lead investigator Professor Graham Le Gros said the cells “might just be the ‘Holy Grail’ we have been searching for”.

“We have used the most cutting-edge cell analysis and transgenic reporter gene technologies currently available to identify these cells in the skin. It is through the expertise of Professor Wolfgang Weninger and colleagues at the Centenary Institute that we were able to see how these immune cells move through the skin, what they interact with and for how long. This has been crucial in allowing us to build up a picture of what these cells are actually doing.”

“By being able to link this new cell type to skin allergy, there is a greater possibility we can now find ways to stop the onset of allergic disease.”

Allergic march

Skin allergy or eczema is usually the first sign of allergic disease in young children and is often associated with an underlying food allergy. These children are then more likely to go on to develop respiratory allergies, such as asthma and hay fever. This progression of allergic disease from one from to another is known as the ‘allergic march’, which, according to the Malaghan Institute, now affects 15–30% of children in Western countries.

Future development of vaccines to treat allergies

“We believe that prevention of allergic disease early in life is critical to halt progression along the allergic march,” says Professor Le Gros. “Since allergic disease is immune-mediated, the most obvious target for new therapies is the earliest stages of the allergic immune response.”

While research in the immediate future will focus on learning more about these cells and how they could be exploited to stop allergic disease. The discovery of the immune cells could eventually pave the way for the development of vaccines to treat allergies. In an interview with The Dominion Post, Professor Le Gros is quoted as saying, “We hope by finding out what makes them tick [the immune cells], we'll be able to make a vaccine that either switches them on so they do their good job, or stops them going out of control and doing their bad job.”

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