How unlocking genetic risk factors could be the path to an allergy-free existence.
It starts as a tickle. It gains momentum with a sniff. Before long, there’s an itch, watery eyes, a runny nose and a full-body sneeze.
It sounds innocuous enough, but for nearly one in five Australians who suffer from hay fever, there’s little relief. Now scientists from QIMR Berghofer have pinpointed more than 100 genetic risk factors that explain why some people are more prone to not only hay fever, but asthma and eczema, too.
‘Asthma, hay fever and eczema are allergic diseases that affect different parts of the body: the lungs, the nose and the skin,’ says QIMR Berghofer’s Dr Manuel Ferreira.
‘We already knew the three diseases shared many genetic risk factors. What we didn’t know was exactly where in the genome those shared genetic risk factors were located. This is important to know because it tells us which speci c genes, when not working properly, cause allergic conditions. This knowledge helps us to understand why allergies develop in the rst place and, potentially, gives us new clues on how they could be prevented or treated.’
Dr Ferreira collaborated with researchers from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US on the major international study, which analysed the genomes of 360 838 people and identi ed 136 locations that heighten the risk of developing one or all of the common allergies.
‘We think the 136 genetic risk factors we found may in uence whether 132 nearby genes were switched on or off, ultimately affecting how the cells of the immune system work. However, what is most exciting is that we have identi ed several drugs that we believe could be targeted at some of these genes to treat allergies. The next step would be to test those drugs in the laboratory,’ he said.
Dr Ferreira said the research also found that environmental factors might affect whether certain genes may be switched on or off.
‘If you are unlucky and inherit these genetic risk factors from your parents, it will predispose you to all three. It doesn’t mean you’ll get all three, but you are at higher risk of all three.’
‘For example, we found one gene – called PITPNM2 – that is more likely to be switched off in people who smoke. If this gene is switched off, then the risk of developing allergies increases,’ he said.
Edison Flynn, 4, has suffered with all three allergies since he was a baby and now uses an inhaler to manage his asthma and topical creams for his eczema.
His mother, Madeleine Flynn, said she was excited by the potential for new drugs to treat the conditions.
‘When he was a baby, it was very, very stressful to deal with eczema and asthma, especially when he was so little,’ she said.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 11 per cent of all Australians, or 2.5 million people, reported having asthma in 2014 – 2015.