Diagnoses of allergies in humans and animals have risen as understanding and awareness have become more common. An allergic reaction may cause unpleasant symptoms like hay fever, food intolerance or skin rashes.
In more severe cases, allergic reactions may also cause acute and life-threatening symptoms, such as asthma or anaphylactic shock. On the other extreme, modern awareness of allergies has led some to claim them where none exist. Studies have shown that 75 percent of people who claim a gluten sensitivity, for example, have no noticeable adverse reaction to gluten, but they think they do.
One of the most well known allergens, i.e. substances that cause allergies, is so-called "Bet v 1" from birch pollen (Betula verrucosa). The protein was first produced artificially in the laboratory 25 years ago in Vienna, and is being used as an allergen model for research throughout the world.
Bet v 1 is the principal allergen among hundreds of other proteins of birch pollen and it renders the immune system hypersensitive and leads to the formation of disease-causing antibodies known as IgE immunoglobulins in 95 percent of persons with a pollen allergy.
Birch pollen protein in its iron-loaded state is not allergenic
Until recently it was not known why harmless molecules trigger allergies at all. Scientist Franziska Roth-Walter and her colleagues from the Messerli Research Institute have now found the possible cause. The birch pollen protein "Bet v 1" is very similar to the human protein Lipocalin 2 in terms of structure; Lipocalin 2 is mainly present in the lung.
Lipocalin 2 and "Bet v 1" possess so-called molecular pockets with which they can bind iron. When these pockets remain empty, the birch pollen protein becomes an allergen and is liable to cause allergic reactions in humans and animals.
The protein manipulates so-called T-helper 2 cells (Th2 cells), a certain type of immune cells, towards allergy. The human protein Lipocalin 2 also performs tasks of the immune system, depending on its iron loading.
Origin of allergy investigated in the model of birch pollen
In allergic people and other mammals, Th2 cells are predominant compared to Th1 cells. Th2 cells play an important role in allergic reactions and in combating parasites. Th1 cells serve to defend the body against bacterial and viral infections.
"A typical feature of allergies is the disruption of the balance between the Th1 and Th2 immune response," explains Professor Erika Jensen-Jarolim, head of the Department of Comparative Medicine at the Messerli Research Institute.
"Investigations currently in progress indicate that we can directly transfer the principle of birch pollen allergens to other allergens with a similar molecular structure. We are thus starting to understand - for the first time - why allergies to pollen, foodstuffs and fungal spores actually arise in the first place."
Environmental factors determine the iron loading of the pollen protein
Scientists at the Messerli Research Institute, a combined facility of the Vetmeduni Vienna, the Meduni Vienna an der University of Vienna, are currently investigating the mechanisms that may contribute to reduced iron loading of "Bet v 1" in plants.
"Iron loading of the birch protein may be connected to the aggravated environmental conditions acting on plants," says Jensen-Jarolim. "In fact, there may be a direct connection between environmental pollution and rising allergy statistics. The most important conclusion from our work is that, in the future, it would make sense to specifically load allergenic molecules of the "Bet v 1" type with iron when they are used as allergy-specific immunotherapy in allergic patients. By doing so, this treatment - which currently takes two to four years - can be greatly shortened and its efficiency can thus be enhanced."