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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame researchers develop peanut allergy inhibitor

Peanut allergies are some of the most common in the world. Scientists have some knowledge on these allergies and how they function, but do not know how to truly stop their symptoms. Now, Notre Dame professor Basar Bilgicer is working with a team to research peanut allergy inhibitors.

The commonality and knowledge of peanut allergies is what pushed this condition to the forefront of their research, Bilgicer said.

“It's the most pervasive form. You know, the one that you hear the most about, because a number of people would have this condition,” he added. “It is the most studied, so we already knew the most about this specific allergy condition.”

Bilgicer noted that the goal of this study is to find a way to stop allergy symptoms before they start. Unlike an epipen, their new treatment does not stop symptoms after eating the allergen, rather it addresses the chemical makeup to stop the symptoms from occurring upon exposure.

Bilgicer said another a goal is to accomplish inhibition with the smallest impact possible on the immune system. So far, most allergy medicine attacks the immune system in the process of dealing with an allergen. Bilgicer's research would have the ability to change the way people deal with their allergies. 

“A lot of these allergy treatments or medications, they are immunosuppressants, one way or another they block your immune system partially or you know, pretty broadly, which makes your exposure to pathogens becoming more dangerous for you," he explained. “So this eliminates that concern, because it only blocks those few antibodies that are responsible for recognizing the allergen and leaves everything else alone.”

These goals are lofty, but years of work have been put in to achieve them. Bilgicer joined the research in 2008 and since then, the researchers have tried their hardest to take small steps toward their goal.

“It's been making progress a little bit at a time,” Bilgicer reflected. 

Research is a slow-moving process. Studies do not begin with random hypotheses and human testing, and those working on this project have spent a decade and a half watching the experiments evolve, he explained. 

“Originally when we started out, we were working with model systems that didn't really have real human energy relevance, but as years progressed, we learned more about allergies and the human immune system,” Bilgicer said. 

The experiments have moved from basic discussions of molecular biology to using mice as subjects. Recently, the mice were treated with the inhibitor, and tests proved the method has real potential to work on human beings.

However, Bilgicer emphasized this does not mean that inhibitors will be available to people in the near future. There are still years of tests before the product will be used on humans. First tests will be performed on other animals, and as the tests progress, they will grow larger and closer to the biology of people.

Bilgicer said this process creates some uncertainty moving forward, because the research cannot be done at the school. While Notre Dame owns the patent, they would need to make partnerships with larger companies in order to performs tests on other animals.

Despite all the progress made and the time already spent on the research, there remains a long road ahead. Not only must the researchers find a partner, but Bilgicer said they also need to perform these experiments in a thorough manner. 

Not all medicines are fast-tracked like the COVID-19 vaccine, and Bilgicer said that without the immediate threat of a public health crisis, it will take more time to evaluate their research. He said he feels the vaccine may have given false hope on how fast the research process works.

“Everybody's expectations are a little skewed because the COVID vaccine came up late in about a year,” he explained.

Although the research may take time, Bilgicer said the researchers have faith in the process and are excited about the prospect of helping people with peanut allergies. But they also realize this model has a possibility to help with many other allergies. Their breakthroughs could be applicable to more than just peanuts, and they have already begun to look at allergens such as shrimp and penicillin. 

No matter how far they have come, Bilgicer looks back at their first real breakthrough as their biggest accomplishment. To him, it seemed to be proof that they were doing something truly worthwhile. 

“We got some really good results that I was really excited about. And then I started thinking, 'Okay, you know, this is a chance, let's move forward,'" he said.