CANBERRA, Australia — For those who love spring, watching the flowers bloom is a wonderful time. For people with allergies however, the countdown to pollen season probably isn’t all that exciting. Luckily, a new study has discovered a natural substance in the immune system which may hold the key to stopping allergies and other life-threatening autoimmune diseases.
Researchers from The Australian National University say this natural response to allergies is led by the protein neuritin.
“We found this absolutely fascinating mechanism of our own bodies that stops the production of rogue antibodies that can cause either autoimmunity or allergies,” says senior author Professor Carola Vinuesa in a university release.
“It’s been known for years that neuritin has a role in the brain and in the nervous system but we found an abundance of neuritin in the immune system and its mechanism – which has never been described in biology. We have shown it is one of our immune system’s own mechanisms to prevent autoimmunity and allergy and now we have the evidence, we can go on to harness that for treatment,” the ANU researcher adds.
Study authors say the work started five years ago when the team made an educated guess that neuritin probably plays a role in regulating allergic reactions.
“It is an incredible discovery. We saw that in the absence of neuritin there is increased susceptibility to death from anaphylaxis, highlighting its role in the prevention of life-threatening allergies,” says study first author Dr. Paula Gonzalez Figueroa.
What causes allergies in the first place?
Allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to allergens like pollen, dust, peanut butter, and whatever else may cause a person to sneeze or worse. The immune system starts pumping out antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE).
However, when the body produces too much IgE it triggers the release of histamine. This sets off the allergic reaction to the otherwise harmful substance.
“We have discovered neuritin prevents excessive formation of IgE that is typically associated with some common forms of allergy and food intolerances,” Prof. Vinuesa explains.
For autoimmune diseases — like lupus, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis — these antibodies go on to attack the body’s healthy tissues. For some patients, the effect can result in life-threatening complications.
“There are over 80 autoimmune diseases, in many of them we find antibodies that bind to our own tissues and attack us instead of targeting pathogens – viruses and bacteria,” Dr. Gonzalez-Figueroa notes. “We found neuritin suppresses formation of rogue plasma cells which are the cells that produce harmful antibodies.”
New allergy medicines on the way?
The team is hoping this discovery is the first step in creating a new line of allergy treatments which use neuritin as their base.
“If this approach was successful, we would not need to deplete important immune cells nor dampen the entire immune system; instead, we would only need to use the proteins our own body uses to ensure immune tolerance,” Prof. Vinuesa concludes.
The study appears in the journal Cell.