Towards a personalised treatment of allergies

The burden of allergies keeps on increasing, with a raising number (2-8%) of affected people in Luxembourg and worldwide. Even though allergies are better diagnosed nowadays, they are still diverse and difficult to treat. A new research project seeks to better evaluate the success of a therapy and tailor the treatment to each patient’s profile, opening up the doors for personalised medicine. IBBL will contribute its expertise in biobanking to this collaborative study by collecting, analysing and storing the biological samples voluntarily donated by patients in Luxembourg.

What is an allergy?

An allergy can develop at any time in our life, at any age. It is an inappropriate and excessive reaction of our immune system, programmed to protect our organism against foreign proteins.

In practice, a foreign substance, known as allergen, is wrongly identified as dangerous by the organism and is thereby attacked by antibodies or immune cells in an attempt to be neutralised and eliminated. These antibodies and cells are responsible for releasing the molecules that trigger symptoms such as skin rashes, itching, sneezing …

What treatment for allergies?

Allergy shots are the only treatment available that is preventive, efficient and lasting. It is in fact an “immunotherapy”, a progressive exposure of the immune system to the allergen. The administrated dose is gradually increased until the maintenance dose is reached and allows a long-term tolerance to the foreign substance.

This therapy is used to tackle pollen or insect sting allergies, and the process takes 3-5 years, or at least 5 respectively. Yet, the effectiveness varies considerably from one patient to another, and it is now impossible to predict a patient’s response to the treatment.

Predicting patient’s response to a treatment

The Sys-T-Act project was launched upon these observations, with the aim to better predict the response of our immune system to an immunotherapy against allergies.

The researchers participating in the project will study the activation of an immune cell population involved in the allergic reactions: the T-lymphocytes. Thanks to cutting-edge techniques they will analyse and compare blood samples from patients allergic to pollen and insect bites before and during the immunotherapy. “We want to identify biological markers in patients’ blood to be able to predict the response of the immune system to an anti-allergic treatment before it even starts. Our project may have a significant impact on the day-to-day treatment of allergies. One simple blood sample would be enough for clinicians to adapt the type, dosage and duration of the treatment specifically to each patient”, explains Prof Markus Ollert, project coordinator.

Kicked off by end 2016, the project has initially recruited about 30 volunteer patients, half of whom are allergic to pollen, while the other half are allergic to bee or wasp venom. Subsequently the project aims to include more than 100 patients in order to obtain more representative results. The study will also be extended to allergies to nuts and peanuts.

Together for the benefit of patients

Specialised in the preparation, collection and preservation of biological samples, IBBL plays an important role in the project. As a biobank, IBBL has been working closely with the clinicians by setting up the collection of blood and stool samples voluntarily donated by patients. Once the samples arrive at the biobank, its laboratory technicians isolate the different elements from the samples, including the immune cells and DNA. Then, they prepare the samples for their downstream research purpose by carrying out some first characterisation tests and ensuring their long-term preservation.

“As a biobank, we represent a bridge between science and medicine, working with clinicians on one hand and researchers on the other. This collaborative facet gives the project a better chance to have a direct impact on patients’ care”, comments Fay Betsou, IBBL’s Chief Scientific Officer.

Initiated by the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the Sys-T-Act study brings together researchers and clinicians from the following institutes:

  • IBBL, which prepares, processes and preserves the biological samples
  • Department of Infection and Immunity at the LIH, which brings its skills in immunology and computational biology
  • Immunology-Allergology service at the CHL, which regularly treats patients allergic to pollen and bee/wasp venom with immunotherapy
  • Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine of the University of Luxembourg, which analyses the role played by the immune cells

The project is financed by the Personalised Medicine Consortium, a consortium of national institutions active in the field of biomedical research. It grants yearly funds to innovative translational research projects, expected to have direct clinical applications for the benefit of patients.