Novel Genetic Biomarkers of for Food Allergy Are epigenetic patterns in particular genes in regulatory T cells the key to understanding food allergy and immunotherapy?

Contact Dr. Jennifer Klein for more information on joining this project: jklein@uwlax.edu; Praire Springs Science Center 4040

This project is funded by a WiSys Spark Award 2019-2020.

Our research group is working in collaboration with Allergy Associates of La Crosse to identify genetic biomarkers for the development of food allergen tolerance in response to oral immunotherapy. Food allergy now affects about 8-11% of the population, a percentage that has risen steadily over the past twenty years. A poorly understood interplay between genes and the environment contributes to the development of food allergy.

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is new to the arena of food allergy treatment in the United States, where the standard of care has been, until now, strict avoidance of the offending food and emergency epinephrine. Allergy Associates of La Crosse are renowned for their pioneering approach to treating food allergies using SLIT (the La Crosse Method), successfully treating thousands of patients who, on average, travel 250 miles to be treated in La Crosse. By systematic exposure to very small doses of the allergen under the tongue, many patients develop a tolerance to the problematic food and are eventually able to handle a few grams of the food, which is enough to protect them from an accidental exposure.

Although SLIT has been generally successful for treating patients with life-threatening food allergies, not all patients respond predictably, and some patients fail to develop immune tolerance to the problematic food. The only reliable test of food allergen tolerance is a food challenge, which is potentially dangerous to the patient, and has resulted in severe reactions. We seek a genetic biomarker of food allergen tolerance that can be used to (1) monitor treatment progress and (2) predict treatment outcome with no risk to the patient beyond a blood draw.

We intend to characterize epigenetic patterns in several genes related to the dysregulated function of immune system regulatory T cells in allergic patients undergoing SLIT at Allergy Associates. The hypothesis is that immunotherapy alters epigenetic patterns in genes that restore the function of regulatory T cells and tolerance to food allergens.

Undergraduate research assistants help with isolating regulatory T cells from patient blood, preparing genomic DNA and RNA from cells, and carrying out DNA sequencing analysis.