Just Turn It Off: Gene Therapy Offers Hope for Asthma and Other Chronic Conditions
Someday you may be able to “turn off” asthma or serious allergies by going to the doctor and getting an injection. At least that’s the long-term goal of researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia. In a recent study, University of Queensland Associate Professor Ray Steptoe used gene therapy to eliminate the “memory” of the T cells that activate asthma attacks and other allergic reactions.
Allergies tend to develop when your immune system is in its early developmental stages and you start getting exposed to allergens. The body’s response to an allergen gets worse with each exposure because the affected T cells develop a “memory” that increases the symptoms every time you encounter that allergen. Many of the acute symptoms of severe asthma are triggered this way.
To eliminate allergic reactions, Steptoe and his colleagues have developed a technique in which a small amount of te gene responsible for allergen production is inserted into bone marrow cells. The patient then receives this as an injection, which develops additional cells that “turn off” the unwanted memory responses.
In their study of Memory Th2 cell responses, Steptoe and his team demonstrated this by eradicating the symptoms of a severe allergic response in mice. There is currently no cure for asthma in humans, but the effects of this lifelong condition can be controlled to some degree. Long-term medicines prevent asthma symptoms by reducing inflammation of the airways and quick-relief medications relieve symptoms as they arise. However, more advances like the one Professor Steptoe has made could take treatment to a whole new level.
We’re still years away from gene therapy trials on humans, and of course, more funding is needed. Yet, the benefit this could have for people vulnerable to severe allergic reactions is a cause for optimism.