New research to explore how food allergies are triggered

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food allergies Allergy Immune system

University of Chicago researchers have been awarded a $433,100 grant to investigate how food allergies are triggered, in a study that could eventually help explore whether GM crops cause allergies.

The study, which was awarded the funding by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), could lay the groundwork for assessing whether genetically modified (GM) crops are more likely to cause food allergies than non-GM crops, the agency said – a question that many consumers have been asking.

More than 12m Americans suffer from a food allergy, or about four percent of the population, and the incidence of food allergies in the US has doubled over the past decade, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Public concern about the possibility of allergies being triggered by GM crops has centered on inherent insect resistant traits in some GM plants, but scientists do not yet know what has caused the rapid rise in the number of allergy sufferers.

One of the researchers working on the study, associate professor at the University of Chicago Anne Sperling, told that she thinks it is unlikely that GM crops trigger more food allergies than non-GM crops, but added: “We don’t understand allergy very well at all, so before we can understand genetically modified crops we have to understand food allergy better.”

For now, the researchers are focusing on egg and peanut allergens by examining antibodies in mice that have gone through a process which gives them an allergy to the foods.

Sperling said that whereas other studies have examined an antibody called IgE, this study will also look at another antibody known as IgG, which binds to allergens, in an effort to better understand why some people’s immune systems overreact to particular foods, resulting in an allergic reaction.

“IgE has been known for a long time to be linked to allergy because it’s involved in the release of antihistamines. IgG has not been particularly looked at before,”​ she said.

At present the only available treatment for food allergy is complete avoidance of the allergen – but the researchers hope that their work may help form the basis of an eventual treatment.

“The long term goal is to come up with a strategy for therapy or a biomarker for diagnosis,”​ said Sperling, “But it’s a long road which takes a lot of work.”

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the most common allergies among children are cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans and wheat.

The most common allergies among adults are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, fruits and vegetables.

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