A fluorescent 3D image of the parasite Nippostrongylus brasilensis

Scope 64 - What do parasites have to say about allergic disease?

31 October 2017, Immune Cell Biology, Professor Franca Ronchese, Scope

You wouldn’t think a tiny helminth would have much to say about allergies, yet this is exactly the kind of parasitic worm Professor Franca Ronchese and the rest of her team at the Malaghan Institute are turning to for answers.

The process of developing an allergy happens long before you notice any symptoms. Yet from rst encounter, an army of immune cells (known as Th2 cells) has already begun to form, lying in wait for the next time you’re exposed, ready to launch an over-the-top counterattack to something that is harmless – otherwise known as an allergic reaction.

Parasites, such as helminths, are great at either stimulating or suppressing an immune response from their hosts. Studying what happens to the immune system when exposed to a parasite is giving the Immune Cell Biology team greater insight into the underlying mechanisms of asthma and allergy.

“The body is really good at inducing a strong Th2 immune response to parasites. This makes them good models to study,” says Dr Connor, senior research fellow. “Th2 cells tell our body to activate physiological responses to rid ourselves of this parasite: things like increased mucus production, smooth muscle contraction and increased vascular permeability – symptoms that allergies and asthma share in common.”

“We hope that these kinds of studies with parasites will help to identify targets that are involved in the initiation of the allergic immune response, so that it can be shut down and in some cases, turned off entirely.”