Making Progress on the Meat AllergyAugust 22, 2019
Our Loren Erickson, PhD, has shed some important light on what happens inside the body of people who develop the meat allergy after being bitten by the Lone Star tick.
Erickson is probing the immunological changes that result from the tick bite, an area we know relatively little about. Bear in mind that the meat allergy was identified relatively recently — our Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills first discovered that the tick bite sensitizes people to a sugar found in mammalian meat called alpha gal. But the actual mechanism of the allergy — what happens within the immune system after the tick bite — remails poorly understood. Erickson and his team are helping to change that.
“We don’t know what it is about the tick bite that causes the meat allergy,” Erickson told me. “In particular, we haven’t really understood the source of immune cells that produce the antibodies that cause the allergic reactions.”
He and his team have determined that people who develop the meat allergy have a distinctive form of immune cells known as B cells, and they have them in great numbers. These white blood cells produce antibodies that, in turn, release chemicals that cause the allergic reaction. This can manifest as itchy hives, stomach upset, possibly even death in the most severe cases.
This new understanding of the mechanism of the allergic reaction brings us closer to being able to develop a treatment. Right now, people with the meat allergy can only try to avoid eating meat.
“There’s no way to prevent or cure this food allergy, so we need to first understand the underlying mechanism that triggers the allergy so we can devise a new therapy,” Erickson explained.
He has also developed a mouse model of the meat allergy that will allow scientists to more effectively and efficiently research this strange condition.