U staff studies allergy genetics

Some University students are not taking in spring for its green beauty or earthy aroma, but are instead feeling the season’s pollens and spores assaulting their sinuses and burning their eyes.

“I mostly get (allergies) in the spring and fall,” nursing senior Stacy Thompson said. “My head is pounding and eyes are watering.”

The University’s Asthma and Allergy Program is researching the genes responsible for allergic reactions and trying to understand why people develop allergies.

“We’re trying to find the genes that cause them,” program director Dr. Malcolm Blumenthal said. “Then, we can find the genetic pathways and develop drugs to intervene.”

He said his department knows when allergens will arrive, but not how bad they will be.

“The worst thing about allergies is they are so unpredictable,” chemical engineering first-year student Greg Kuehne said. “I start to sneeze and I think, ‘I should have gotten on meds a week ago.’ “

Like Kuehne, 50 million to 60 million Americans suffer from allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Thompson said she has had allergies her whole life.

“I don’t think I have them super bad, but I think they’ve become worse over the past two or three years,” she said.

Blumenthal explained how allergies and allergic asthma take hold.

“You need to have a genetic predisposition, and then you need to be exposed, sensitized and re-exposed to the allergen,” he said.

Researchers’ opinions vary, but Blumenthal said he believes there is a window of opportunity between ages 1 and 3 when people become sensitized to particular allergens.

Many medications are available to block, hide or otherwise disguise allergy symptoms.

“I take Claritin every day now, but I need to get something stronger,” Kuehne said.

Thompson said she occasionally takes an Allegra or two from her mother.

Medications that block

genetic pathways and immune response are also becoming available, Blumenthal said.

“But whenever you modify the immune system, you don’t know exactly what the result will be,” he said.

Allergies and asthma occur more frequently in the inner city, Blumenthal said.

Smoking, pollution and poor access to medical care might contribute to the higher number of cases, he said. Blacks and Latinos are more at risk for asthma, he said.

“Strangely enough, people who live on farms, around all those allergens, have a much lower prevalence of hay fever or asthma,” Blumenthal said.

Gaining notoriety in the last few years, he said, is a hypothesis that claims infections in young children can make their bodies immune to allergies.

Childhood immunization prevents these infections and children do not develop immunity, Blumenthal said.

“Asthma and allergies are increasing. Why?” he said. “There are studies showing that in Third World countries, there are hardly any allergy sufferers.”

At the University, students dealing with allergy symptoms face a constant battle.

“Maybe they could just eliminate all the cats in the world,” Thompson said.

But barring feline genocide, sufferers have little choice but to persevere.

“You learn to live with it,” Kuehne said. “I mean, people are dying of real diseases in the world; I can handle some allergies.”