The number of people suffering from allergies is surging upward, with as many as 30 percent of adults and up to 40 percent of children in the U.S. reporting at least one allergy.


Allergies are caused by hypersensitivity to apparently benign materials, such as bee pollen or latex. Contact with those substances raises an inflammatory response, albeit a different one that occurs following infection: particular proteins or carbohydrates found in offending allergens provoke an immune response via antibodies known as IgE. When IgE molecules bind to mast cells, they trigger the release of histamine, which causes common allergy-related symptoms, such as coughing, runny nose (rhinitis) or itchy eyes.

While over-the-counter drugs keep allergic symptoms in check for some, chronic allergies adversely affect quality of life—just ask the 50 million Americans who suffer from hay fever.

Histamine dilates blood vessels, possibly to allow bulky white blood cells to race through the bloodstream in an allergic attack. Acute “anaphylactic” allergic responses, however, can cause blood pressure to plummet to fatal levels if normal blood pressure is not restored by epinephrine injection.

Training the Immune System
Allergen immunotherapy (commonly called “allergy shots”) is thus far the only way to achieve permanent relief from moderate allergy attacks. These treatments, which are akin to training the dog not to bark at the postman by walking Fido often by the post office, should not be confused with cancer immunotherapies: they work in the opposite manner. The latter rally immune activity to eradicate a tumor cell, while allergic immunotherapies gradually expose an already amped-up immune system to increasing doses of allergen to “teach” it to ignore it.

These approaches generally work: many succeed in gradually decreasing the flood of allergy-associated IgE antibodies in a patient’s bloodstream following allergen exposure and relieve patients’ symptoms to varying extents. Many LJI scientists are focusing on ways to apply them to additional types of allergy or on making them more efficient or even patient-specific.

In rare instances, immunotherapy inoculations trigger a life-threatening drop in blood pressure called anaphylaxis. LJI scientists are also trying to circumvent this complication by exploring alternative, less inflammatory immunotherapy protocols.

Others are developing innovative treatment approaches for the lung-specific allergic condition known as asthma, a condition marked by airway obstruction and shortness of breath. Work at LJI has already led to development of a novel drug that suppresses lung inflammation in asthma patients. Other LJI scientists are designing peptides to block a pro-inflammatory receptor expressed on mast cells required for histamine secretion, work that could be translated into strategies to treat asthma and other allergies.


Toshiaki Kawakami, M.D., Ph.D.
Bjoern Peters, Ph.D.
Alessandro Sette, Dr. Biol.Sci.
Pandurangan Vijayanand, M.D. Ph.D.

From The Lab

Jun 20, 2018

Genetic Deletion of Two Protein-Modifying Enzymes Predisposes Mice to Asthma

Cooperative ubiquitination of a T-cell regulator may defend against lung inflammation
Feb 16, 2018 // Journal of Immunology

Immune signature predicts asthma susceptibility

Immune signature predicts asthma susceptibility
Feb 13, 2018 // Immunity

LJI researchers reveal how to undermine immune cell mobilization in allergic inflammation.

Study suggests blocking lymphoid cell maturation could serve as anti-asthma treatment
Jan 16, 2018 // Journal of Experimental Medicine

LJI researchers discover key driver of atopic dermatitis

The discovery provides a novel therapeutic target for the treatment of severe eczema
Nov 13, 2017 // Journal of Clinical Investigation

Allergy amplifier implicated in asthma also intensifies food allergy

La Jolla Institute researchers report that inhibitors of Histamine-Releasing Factor could block inflammatory response to food allergens