Allergies Spring into Existence

Learning about the progression of allergy research gives rise to new inquiries and even more discoveries that could benefit other avenues of science.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Lillian Zou

The first beautiful spring morning is upon us. You wake up to beams of sunlight streaming through the window and the overwhelmingly fragrant smell of blossoming buds. Achoo! Uh oh—you can already feel the tickle in your nose and throat: your allergies are back. These allergies have once again arisen from their deep slumber to torment you. The constant urge to scratch your eyes fills your mind from day to night. A pandemic of pollen––a simple substance released by plants during reproduction––has started a vicious campaign to fight against the human population. The odds of obtaining allergies have been shown to vary from person to person. As you go about your day, your mind fixates on gaining insight into your troublesome spring allergies.

Allergies are caused by a malfunction in the immune system that mistakes something harmless for a threat. This immune response has persisted in humans for millennia. Allergists have taken note of genetic susceptibility to allergies, which aligns with generational allergy transmission. Allergies can also develop spontaneously at any point in life through two steps. First, the immune system must come into contact with what it perceives to be a dangerous allergen, causing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to flood the bloodstream. The immune system works non-stop, leaving the door open to mistakes at the molecular level. IgE antibodies are molecules released during infections to tag them, thus mediating the activation of the immune system. Next, repeated encounters cause the immune system to produce even more allergen-specific IgE antibodies to bind to the alleged threat, producing histamine—a pro-inflammatory chemical that causes the symptoms of allergies—and creating inflammation by increasing blood flow to the affected area. Because of the excessive number of antibodies produced, the second exposure is always far more potent than the first. As a result, symptoms of allergies develop during stage two. The symptoms range from a sore throat to anaphylaxis, a severe reaction to an allergen entailing a complete shutdown of the body systems—constricted airways diminish airflow, and low blood pressure decreases the allocation of oxygen.

Though allergy research has led to several medicinal discoveries, no cure has been developed. Depending on the severity and categorization of an allergic reaction, treatment through medications or injections can be used to nullify the immune system’s hyperactivity. Antihistamines, for instance, are a class of medications that inhibit the production of histamine, a molecule responsible for causing itchiness and congestion. Similarly, corticosteroids suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation by inhibiting the production of genes encoding for inflammatory cytokines and chemokines, which play a role in immune cell signaling and migration. Decongestants are used to help shrink the blood vessels that contribute to nasal cavity clogging. A hormone called epinephrine, or adrenaline, is introduced into the bloodstream with an EpiPen to cause an adrenaline spike, which constricts the blood vessels, increases blood pressure, and relaxes the lung muscles in order to open the airway.

Due to successful and extensive allergy research, countless allergy medications line the aisles of drugstores. Yet there are no definitive cures for allergies. The diverse nature of allergies makes it challenging to find a single effective treatment. While a cure could potentially be effective for several specific and linked allergies, it would likely fail to cure others. Our current knowledge of allergies is too insufficient to produce an inclusive cure. Furthermore, it is still standard practice to use animals for testing new drugs, posing another barrier; animals have different immune systems than humans, causing discrepancies in responses to clinical drugs. Without extensive testing in humans, it is not possible for a doctor to determine the allergen-specific IgE produced by a patient. In addition, IgE varies from person to person, once again decreasing the likelihood of a singular effective universal treatment.

Despite these obstacles, there has been an increasing number of studies searching for allergy cures. One such potential cure is Allergy Shots and Sublingual Immunotherapy. This treatment relies on exposing the immune system to increasing numbers of specific allergens, thus reducing immune sensitivity over time. On the other hand, non-specific therapies like probiotics and anti-IgE pharmacotherapy have also shown positive results. Probiotics can lower the risk of developing allergies and reduce symptoms. In one study, the administration of the probiotics Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium reduced the amount of inflammation and immune hyper-reactivity in children. Precision medicine, which is targeted medicine for a specific person, is being used to form a diverse and affordable range of allergy treatments. Lastly, a non-specific therapy, known as anti-IgE pharmacotherapy, inhibits allergen-specific IgE through medication, stopping the immune system’s destructive chain pathways. Omalizumab, an antibody, has been shown to be capable of blocking the IgE pathway, therefore preventing the effects of a strong allergic reaction.

Thanks to new technologies and research, you might get to enjoy the beauty of spring for once. Waking up to a world without allergies seems unrealistic, but time and resources have been devoted to expansive research. After all, allergy research has many medicinal and scientific prospects, such as a universal allergen or being able to control specific allergens to test new treatments requiring the activation of the immune system. Even so, questions arise regarding the importance of eliminating allergies in a world of other maladies. The next time you dote upon the delicate fragility of spring’s first flowers, remember that they can wreak havoc on your body’s homeostasis. Yet, they are the ones that provide the oxygen you breathe, give the nutrients for survival, and symbolize nature’s beauty.