There has been a surge of research in recent years looking at the gut and the role it plays in our overall health and well-being—we also wrote about this topic in a recent post.
It should come as no surprise then that in September, the nation’s leading food allergy non-profit, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), awarded a $15M grant to the Food Allergy Science Initiative (FASI). The grant is a research effort between MIT’s Broad Institute and Harvard to research the role of the gut, nervous system, and brain in allergic reactions.
Our team had a chance to chat with Dr. Ruslan Medzhitov, FASI’s Food Allergy Director, to learn more about this exciting new field of research.
Can you tell us a bit more about why this research is important and what you hope to achieve?
For a long time, scientists thought that food allergies were the result of a dysregulated immune system. We now know that the role of the immune system is only part of the equation. New research, including FASI-led studies, identifies another important factor: the nervous system. Our research found the immune and nervous systems talk to one another to modulate allergic reactions. Jointly, these two systems evaluate food in the gut, detect allergens, alert the brain, and signal whether or not to trigger an allergic reaction.
Clearly, these neuroimmune connections are critical to understanding the science underpinning allergic reactions. This grant focuses on understanding these connections.
The project has three main goals:
Decoding the molecular mechanisms by which the gut senses allergens;
Identifying the neuroimmune pathways through which the gut and brain communicate with each other to either promote or suppress allergic reactions; and
Creating a complete picture of these neuroimmune players in the brain and gut by visualizing their spatial organization with the latest imaging tools.
We’re also addressing other important questions, such as why some individuals can develop allergy-related antibodies to foods without having reaction symptoms, and why symptoms vary so widely among allergic individuals, even from one reaction to the next.
Do you think we’ll have answers to these questions by the end of this project?
While the grant is for three years, this work is just the beginning. We’ve only recently started to understand the role of neuroimmune communications in food allergies, and the hope is that this research will eventually point us toward new treatments.
This is a new field of study, so there’s much that we still need to learn.
It seems an interdisciplinary team will be required—what areas of expertise will be involved?
We cannot tackle food allergies from the perspective of immunology alone.
Since its launch, FASI has taken an interdisciplinary approach to food allergies. The initiative brings together a diverse group of scientists, including immunologists, gastroenterologists, bioengineers, and clinicians.
With this project, because we are convening two traditionally distinct fields—neuroscience and immunology—we’ve brought neuroscientists into the initiative. The hope is that scientists with different areas of expertise and perspectives, working together, will help us identify the true culprits of food allergy.
Any parting words for our readers?
We need greater public awareness about food allergy. It is a life-threatening disease that affects millions of people around the world, but its basic biology is still poorly understood, and as a result, diagnostics and treatments are rudimentary. As FASI’s director, it’s my mission to ensure that food allergy research gets the scientific—and public—attention it deserves, so we can together advance the field and work toward effective treatments and therapeutics that patients urgently need.
Thank you, Dr. Medzhitov! We’re grateful for FASI’s work towards deciphering the root causes of food allergy and the body’s neuroimmune connections.
If you’d like to stay informed about the project, subscribe to the FASI newsletter here.
– The Allergy Amulet Team
Ruslan Medzhitov is the Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at Yale University School of Medicine, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and the director of the Food Allergy and Science Initiative (FASI). His laboratory is focused on allergy, inflammation, infection biology, cell signaling, and transcriptional control of cell fate decisions.
The Allergy Amulet Team