Monash University researchers are working on a vaccine that could completely cure asthma brought on by house dust mite allergies. If successful, the vaccine would have the potential to cure sufferers in two to three doses. This could save tens of thousands of lives each year worldwide and billions of dollars each year in medical costs.
Dust mites may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma. About 20 million Americans have dust mite allergy. Dust mites are well adapted to most areas of the world—they are found on every continent except Antarctica. Too small to be seen with the naked eye, a dust mite measures only about one-quarter to one-third of a millimeter. Under a microscope, they can be seen as whitish bugs. Having eight rather than six legs, mites are technically not insects but arthropods, like spiders. Dust mite waste contains a protein that is an allergen—a substance that provokes an allergic immune reaction—for many people. Throughout its life a single dust mite may produce as much as 200 times its body weight in waste.
Allergies to house dust mites is a leading cause of asthma and the respiratory condition affects more than 2 million Australians and costs more than $600 million in health expenditure each year.
Currently, people allergic to house dust mites must continually clean their environments to remove the microscopic creatures from soft furnishings to avoid an allergic attack. Medications can bring relief for some sufferers, but must be taken regularly. Others respond less well to medications.
Professor Els Meeusen, who is working with Professor Robyn O’Hehir, both from the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, believes that a vaccine for people with house dust mite allergies will have a range of health and financial benefits for patients and the government.
“We are aiming to develop a vaccine that can be completely delivered in two to three doses. That means a person suffering from a house dust mite allergy will be able to breathe easily from their final dose,” Professor Meeusen said.
“Allergies cost the Australian economy approximately seven billion dollars every year. The potential reduction in cost to the patient and to the government by eradicating a common allergy such as this is immense.”
Professor O’Hehir has also made significant gains in developing a vaccine for people with peanut allergies. Currently there is no specific treatment for peanut allergy with avoidance and emergency treatment of anaphylaxis with adrenaline as the only options. Allergen immunotherapy is available for selected patients with house dust mite allergy but typically injections need to be given regularly for three to five years.
“This method of immunisation is quite precarious, because modern medicine still isn’t entirely sure how it really works,” Professor Meeusen said.
“The immunisation is administered in small doses. Too much can cause anaphylactic shock. It’s a very fine line.”
Laboratory testing has shown that a genetic predisposition exists to be allergic to more than one allergen.
“We have already found that being allergic to peanuts also represents the likelihood of developing an allergy to house dust mites,” Professor Meeusen said.
“In humans it is difficult to look at how the very early stages of allergy occur, because you don’t get to see the patient until it is well developed in their allergic response. Our testing enables us to look at the very first time that our models are exposed to the allergen.”
From there, the scientists can see which models are going to develop an allergy and which are not, to determine the difference between them.
This research involves using the scientist’s knowledge of normal vaccines for infectious diseases to better understand how allergy vaccines work in order to develop more effective and safer products.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
* Approximately 34.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma by a health professional during their lifetime.
* An estimated 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma, with 250,000 annual deaths attributed to the disease.
* Workplace conditions, such as exposure to fumes, gases or dust, are responsible for 11% of asthma cases worldwide.
* About 70% of asthmatics also have allergies.
* The prevalence of asthma increased 75% from 1980-1994.
* Asthma rates in children under the age of five have increased more than 160% from 1980-1994.
* It is estimated that the number of people with asthma will grow by more than 100 million by 2025.
* Asthma accounts for approximately 500,000 hospitalizations each year.
* 13 million school days are missed each year due to asthma.
* Asthma accounts for about 10.1 million missed work days for adults annually.
* Asthma was responsible for 3,384 deaths in the United States in 2005.
* The annual economic cost of asthma is $19.7 billion. Direct costs make up $14.7 billion of that total, and indirect costs such as lost productivity add another $5 billion.
* Prescription drugs represented the largest single direct medical expenditure related to asthma, over $6 billion.
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