By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Over 50 million Americans suffer from allergies—but new relief may be near. Allergies are essentially an overreaction by the immune system, and they range from annoying to deadly. A new natural protein could make a big difference.
Allergy season has already begun in the Northern Hemisphere, to which anyone keeping a tissue box nearby can attest. Nearly one in five people suffer from allergies, whether it means itchy eyes and stuffy noses or having to avoid restaurants that cook with peanut products to escape a grisly fate. Now, scientists believe they’ve found a natural protein called neuritin that may suppress the formation of rogue plasma cells that produce the harmful antibodies associated with allergies.
Allergies are a relatively new field of study; the term “allergy” wasn’t even coined until the early 20th century. In his video series Mysteries of the Microscopic World, produced before his passing, Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, who was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, explained how allergies work.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
Why is a food delicious to one person but could potentially kill the person sitting next to them? Our bodies are so different that basically no two human beings are identical. We’re all unique, like snowflakes. This plays into our immune systems as well.
“People who suffer from allergies are called atopic, [and] atopy is hereditary,” Dr. Fleury said. “If either parent is atopic, you have a 25% greater risk of atopy yourself. If both parents are atopic, your risk goes up to 50%.”
According to Dr. Fleury, 50 to 60 million Americans are atopic. Food allergies are especially common, with 2% of Americans suffering from them. He said that food allergies are caused by undigested bits of protein that slip out from the digestive system to the blood, where they’re seen as intruders. The effects vary drastically.
“Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction; it involves the entire body,” Dr. Fleury said. “Symptoms can include respiratory problems, vomiting, diarrhea, hives, and loss of bladder control. Blood pressure drops so quickly that victims sometimes slip into shock and die.”
At the Heart of It All, Histamine
When we get a cut or a bee sting, the immune system ordinarily sends some immune cells or antibodies like Immunoglobulin E (IgE) to an affected area to seal it off and heal it, hence the inflammatory reaction of swelling and some discomfort. The immune cells get to the site of injury with the help of a chemical called , which lives in cells called mast cells. Histamine helps our capillaries become “leaky” to send in antibodies.
However, for those with certain allergies, the body doesn’t localize where it sends IgE. People who are allergic to something—say, bee venom—have a hypersensitive autoimmune reaction to that allergen. To someone highly allergic to bee venom, histamine goes into overdrive all over the body, causing such blood loss that blood pressure plummets, leading to shock.
“If that weren’t bad enough, the histamine binds to smooth muscles that lead into the air sacs in the lungs, causing them to contract and close down the airways,” Dr. Fleury said. “The fluids that accumulate in the lungs from the histamine reaction also restrict the uptake of oxygen, as does the copious mucous blocking the airways—all adding to the respiratory distress.
“It’s like signaling a four-alarm fire for a lit cigarette.”