Like any life-threatening medical condition that affects children, food allergies can traumatize more than just the patient. My wife and I learned this one summer afternoon when our daughter was three years old.
Emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016.
At an ice cream parlor, I gave Samantha a lick of my pistachio cone; within seconds, red blotches erupted on her skin, her lips began to swell, and she complained that her throat felt funny. We rushed her to the nearest emergency room, where a doctor injected her with epinephrine. Explaining that the reaction, known as anaphylaxis, could have been fatal if left unchecked, he advised us to have her tested for nut allergies—and to start carrying an injector of our own.
After an allergist confirmed Sam's vulnerability to tree nuts and peanuts, we figured that keeping her safe would be relatively simple. But food allergies often come in bunches. Over the next year, she wound up back in the ER after eating bread with sesame seeds at an Italian restaurant, and again after slurping buckwheat noodles at our neighborhood Japanese. She hated eggs, so we discovered that (less severe) allergy only when she vomited after eating a variety of products containing them.
In recent years, a growing number of families have had to grapple with such challenges. An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies, or nearly 10 percent of the population—10 times the prevalence reported 35 years ago. The severity of symptoms seems to be increasing, too. According to a study released in January by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a Virginia-based nonprofit, insurance claims for anaphylactic food reactions rose 377 percent in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016.
Because food allergies most commonly emerge in childhood, these trends are largely driven by the young. An insurance-industry study found that emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016. Peanut allergies, once rare, tripled in kids between 1997 and 2008. "The first year, it was 1 in 250," says Scott Sicherer, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, who led that study. "When we did the next round of research, in 2002, it was 1 in 125. I thought there must be a mistake. But by 2008, it was 1 in 70."
The forces behind these dire statistics—as well as similar numbers throughout the developed world—have yet to be positively identified. But the leading suspects are elements of our modern lifestyle that can throw the immune system out of whack, prompting potentially deadly overreactions to harmless proteins. Although parents can take a few steps that might lessen their children's risk, societal changes may be needed to brighten the larger epidemiological picture.
Meanwhile, scientists are racing to develop therapies that can induce patients' hyped-up immune defenses to chill. And lately, they've made some big strides toward that goal.
A Variety of Culprits
In the United States, about 90 percent of allergic reactions come from eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. The list varies from country to country, depending on dietary customs, but what the trigger foods all have in common is proteins that can survive breakdown in the stomach and enter the bloodstream more or less intact.
"When we were kids, we played in the dirt. Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."
A food allergy results from a chain of biochemical misunderstandings. The first time the immune system encounters an allergen (as a protein that triggers an allergy is known), it mistakes the substance for a hostile invader—perhaps a parasite with a similar molecular profile. In response, it produces an antibody called immunoglobin E (IgE), which is designed to bind to a specific protein and flag it for attack. These antibodies circulate through the bloodstream and attach to immune-system foot soldiers known as mast cells and basophils, which congregate in the nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.
The next time the person is exposed to the allergen, the IgE antibodies signal the warrior cells to blast the intruder with histamines and other chemical weapons. Tissues in the affected areas swell and leak fluid; blood pressure may fall. Depending on the strength of the reaction, collateral damage to the patient can range from unpleasant—itching, runny nose, nausea—to catastrophic.
This kind of immunological glitchiness runs in families. Genome-wide association studies have identified a dozen genes linked to allergies of all types, and twin studies suggest that about 80 percent of the risk of food allergies is heritable. But why one family member shows symptoms while another doesn't remains unknown. Nor can genetics explain why food allergy rates have skyrocketed in such a brief period. For that, we must turn to the environment.
First, it's important to note that rates of all allergies are rising—including skin and respiratory afflictions—though none as rapidly or with as much risk of anaphylaxis as those involving food. The takeoff was already underway in the late 1980s, when British epidemiologist David P. Strachan found that children in larger households had fewer instances of hay fever. The reason, he suggested, was that their immune systems were strengthened by exposure to their siblings' germs. Since then, other researchers have discerned more evidence for Strachan's "hygiene hypothesis": higher rates of allergy (as well as autoimmune disorders) in cities versus rural areas, in industrialized countries versus developing ones, in lab animals raised under sterile conditions versus those exposed to germs.
Fending off a variety of pathogens, experts theorize, helps train the immune system to better distinguish friend from foe, and to respond to threats in a more nuanced manner. In an era of increasing urbanization, shrinking family sizes, and more sheltered lifestyles, such conditioning may be harder to come by. "When we were kids, we played in the dirt," observes Cathryn R. Nagler, a professor and food allergy researcher at the University of Chicago. "Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."
But other factors may be driving the allergy epidemic as well. More time indoors, for example, means less exposure to sunlight, which can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D—a nutrient crucial to immune system regulation. The growing popularity of processed foods filled with refined fats and sugars may play a role, along with rising rates of obesity, by promoting tissue inflammation that could increase some people's risk of immunological mayhem. And the surge in allergies also correlates with several trends that may be altering the human microbiome, the community of microbes (including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, among others) that inhabits our guts, skin, and bodily orifices.
The microbiome connection may be particularly relevant to food allergies. In 2014, a team led by Nagler published a landmark study showing that Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against these allergies. When the researchers fed peanut allergens to germ-free mice (born and raised in sterile conditions) and to mice treated with antibiotics as newborns (reducing their gut bacteria), the animals showed a strong immunological response. This sensitization could be reversed, however, by reintroducing Clostridia—but not another class of bacteria, Bacteroides—into the mice. Further experiments revealed that Clostridia caused immune cells to produce high levels of interleukin-22 (IL-22), a signaling molecule known to decrease the permeability of the intestinal lining.
"In simple terms," Nagler says, "what we found is that these bacteria prevent food allergens from gaining access to the blood in an intact form that elicits an allergic reaction."
A growing body of evidence suggests that our eating habits are throwing our gut microbiota off-balance, in part by depriving helpful species of the dietary fiber they feed on. Our increasing exposure to antibiotics and antimicrobial compounds may be harming our beneficial bugs as well. These depletions could affect kids from the moment they enter the world: Because babies are seeded with their mothers' microbiota as they pass through the birth canal, they may be inheriting a less diverse microbiome than did previous generations. And the rising rate of caesarian deliveries may be further depriving our children of the bugs they need.
On expert suggests two measures worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics.
So which culprit is most responsible for the food allergy upsurge? "The illnesses that we're measuring are complex," says Sicherer. "There are multiple genetic inputs, which interact with one another, and there are multiple environmental inputs, which interact with each other and with the genes. There's not one single thing that's causing this. It's a conglomeration."
What Parents Can Do
For anyone hoping to reduce their child's or their own odds of developing a food allergy (rates of adult onset are also increasing), the current state of science offers few guideposts. As with many other areas of health research, it's hard to know when the data is solid enough to warrant a particular course of action. A case in point: the American Academy of Pediatrics once recommended that children at risk of allergy to peanuts (as evidenced by family history, other food allergies, or eczema) wait to eat them until age three; now, the AAP advises those parents to start their babies at four months, citing epidemiological evidence that early exposure may prevent peanut allergies.
And it's all too easy for a layperson to draw mistaken conclusions from media coverage of such research—inferring, for instance, that taking commercially available probiotics might have a protective effect. Unfortunately, says Nagler, none of those products even contain the relevant kind of bacteria.
Although, as a research scientist, she refrains from giving medical advice, Nagler does suggest (based on a large body of academic literature) that two measures are worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics. Yet she acknowledges that it's not always possible to avoid the suspected risk factors for food allergies. Sometimes an antibiotic is a lifesaving necessity, for example—and it's tough to avoid exposure to such drugs altogether, due to their use in animal feed and their consequent presence in many foods and in the water supply. If these chemicals are contributing to the food allergy epidemic, protecting ourselves will require action from farmers, doctors, manufacturers, and policymakers.
My family's experience illustrates the limits of healthy lifestyle choices in mitigating allergy risk. My daughter and son were born without C-sections; both were breastfed as well, receiving maximum microbial seeding from their mother. As a family, we eat exemplary diets, and no one could describe our home as excessively clean. Yet one child can't taste nuts, sesame, or buckwheat without becoming dangerously ill. "You can do everything right and still have allergies," says Ian A. Myles, a staff clinician at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "You can do everything wrong and not have allergies. The two groups overlap."
The Latest Science Shows Promise
But while preventing all food allergies is clearly unrealistic, researchers are making remarkable progress in developing better treatments—therapies that, instead of combating symptoms after they've started (like epinephrine or antihistamines), aim to make patients less sensitive to allergens in the first place. One promising approach is oral immunotherapy (OIT), in which patients consume small but slowly increasing amounts of an allergen, gradually reducing their sensitivity. A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that an experimental OIT called AR101, consisting of a standardized peanut powder mixed into food, enabled 67 percent of participants to tolerate a dose equivalent to two peanut kernels—a potential lifesaver if they were accidentally exposed to the real thing.
Because OIT itself can trigger troublesome reactions in some patients, however, it's not for everyone. Another experimental treatment, sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) uses an allergen solution or dissolving tablet placed beneath the tongue; although its results are less robust than OIT's, it seems to generate milder side effects. Epicutaneous immunotherapy (EPIT) avoids the mouth entirely, using a technology similar to a nicotine patch to deliver allergens through the skin. Researchers are also exploring the use of medications known as biologics, aiming to speed up the action of immunotherapies by suppressing IgE or targeting other immune-system molecules.
These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies.
One downside of the immunotherapy approach is that in most cases the allergen must be taken indefinitely to maintain desensitization. To provide a potentially permanent fix, scientists are working on vaccines that use DNA or peptides (protein fragments) from allergens to reset patients' immune systems.
Nagler is attacking the problem from a different angle—one that starts with the microbiome. In a recent study, a follow-up to her peanut-allergy investigation, she and her colleagues found that Clostridia bacteria protect mice against milk allergy as well; they also identified a particular species responsible, known as Anaerostipes caccae. The bugs, the team determined, produce a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, which modulates many immune activities crucial to maintaining a well-sealed gut.
These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies. Nagler has launched a company, ClostraBio, to develop biotherapeutics based on this notion; she expects its first product, using synthetic butyrate, to be ready for clinical trials within the next two years.
My daughter could well be a candidate for such a medication. Sam, now 15, is a vibrant, resilient kid who handles her allergies with confidence and humor. Thanks to vigilance and luck (on her part as well as her parents'), she hasn't had another food-related ER visit in more than a decade; she's never had to use her Epi-Pen. Still, she says, she would welcome the arrival of a pill that could reduce the danger. "I've learned how to watch out for myself," she says. "But it would be nice not to have to be so careful."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.