Got allergies? Seattle discovery could improve treatment — and possibly lead to cure

Scientists have developed a way to distinguish “bad” cells that trigger allergies from “good” cells that fight infection.

Allergy sufferers know the drill: Eyes that itch and water; sneezes that won’t stop; the fear that a hidden morsel of peanut will trigger a life-or-death crisis.

Over-the-counter drugs and allergy shots deliver relief to some people, but not others.

Now, a discovery by Seattle researchers holds out the hope of better diagnosis and treatment for allergies of all types — and may even lead to a cure someday.

“I think it’s a big deal,” said Dr. David Robinson, an allergy specialist at Virginia Mason Medical Center and co-author of the study, which is featured on the cover of this week’s edition of the journal Science Translational Medicine. “Ultimately we’re interested in fixing allergies and treating people, but you have to understand it first.”

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Led by researchers at Virginia Mason’s Benaroya Research Institute, the Seattle team is the first to find a way to distinguish the “bad” immune-system cells that trigger allergies from “good” immune cells that fight infection. They also showed that effective allergy therapy banishes the bad cells from the body.

“If you are allergic, you have those bad cells,” said lead author Erik Wambre. “ If you are not allergic, you don’t.”

That means scientists should be able to develop a test to identify people at risk of allergies, even at a very young age, he said. For parents, that could eliminate the panicked trips to the emergency room that are often the first indication that their child has a dangerous food allergy.

The ability to monitor the level of bad cells in a patient’s blood would also allow doctors to quickly determine whether treatment is working. But it’s the possibility of stamping out the bad cells altogether that has the researchers most excited.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” said Wambre. “My hope is that we might find a drug that will specifically destroy the (bad) cells, or at least stop them.”

Almost 50 million Americans suffer from nasal allergies, while about 4 million children have food allergies. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates the total amount spent on drugs, shots and other health care at nearly $18 billion a year.

Allergic reactions are triggered when the immune system mistakenly sounds the alarm over…

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