Wellington scientists have made a significant breakthrough in unravelling the mystery of what triggers allergies at epidemic proportions.
The world-first discovery of a unique type of immune cell in the skin was made at The Malaghan Institute and is the next step towards creating a vaccine for allergies.
"These newly discovered skin immune cells might just be the holy grail we have been searching for," director Graham Le Gros said.
"We do need to find out a little bit more about these mystery cells. We're not quite sure how they get in the skin in the first place and we're not quite sure of all the things that keep them under control.
"We hope by finding out what makes them tick we'll be able to make a vaccine that either switches them on so they do their good job, or stops them going out of control and doing their bad job."
A vaccine would ideally shut down the relevant part of the immune system that was causing the nut, dairy or skin allergy, rather than shutting down the whole system, exposing people to other complications and diseases.
Allergy New Zealand chief executive Penny Jorgensen said a third of people were affected by allergies, and one in 10 babies would develop a significant allergy-related health issue. On top of the increase, allergies were getting more complex, she said.
The cell discovery was published in prestigious journal Nature Immunology last month, and had forced scientists to revisit their thinking on how allergies started, Professor Le Gros said.
"A lot of the research has been centred towards just controlling the symptoms ... they've never really focused on what gets it going in the first place.
"No one knows what's going on. Food allergy is increasing, eczema is increasing - there's something changing in our environment."
Doctorate student Ryan Kyle, 24, helped make the discovery in the Wellington lab about a year ago, after two years of background work by Australia's leading dermatology researchers at the Centenary Institute in Sydney.
"We thought it was a pretty awesome find," Mr Kyle said.
Researchers often spent their entire careers trying to crack a discovery on such a scale and to be published in such a reputable journal, but Mr Kyle was not letting it go to his head. "I would hope to get in there again, but it's early days yet."
Skin allergy is usually the first sign of allergic disease in babies and is often associated with an underlying food allergy. These children are more likely to develop respiratory allergies, such as asthma and hay fever.
This phenomenon has been termed the "allergic march" and affected between 15 and 30 per cent of children in Western countries, Professor Le Gros said.
He was due to make a presentation to the Health Research Council today for $5 million of funding to learn more about the cells and how they could be used to stop allergic disease.
- The Dominion Post
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