8th September 2006
A cure for allergies that affects millions including asthma and hayfever will be available within the next few years, experts have revealed.
Cutting-edge research from around the world will yield a treatment for hay fever by 2009, with a cure for asthma following shortly afterwards.
Treatments for potentially fatal food allergies are also in the pipeline - and vaccines capable of preventing a host of dehabilitating conditions in a single jab could be available in just ten years.
The injections, pills - and even drops that dissolve under the tongue - will transform the lives of the millions of Britons whose lives are blighted by conditions from hay fever to potentially lethal nut allergies.
Researcher Dr Ronald van Ree said: 'This is not science fiction, it is realistic.'
Jonathan Brostoff, Professor of Allergy at King's College London, said he believed treatments for peanut allergy based on manmade proteins have 'a big future'.
Vaccines could be even more successful. 'If there is an effective vaccine for peanut allergy, it will transform the lives of patients,' he said. 'If there was a vaccine that was amazingly effective for all asthma and all hay fever, then who wouldn't want in on it? Anything that improves the lives of allergy sufferers is a boon.'
The astonishing news comes as the health service spends £1billion a year struggling to cope with an allergy epidemic, with one in three Britons - 18million people - developing an allergy in their lifetime.
Rates of asthma have doubled in the last 20 years, with the condition affecting five million people in England alone. Figures for hay fever have also soared, with one in four Britons suffering an allergy to pollen.
There has also been a sharp rise in anaphylaxis, the most severe form of allergic reaction, with more than 3,000 people taken to hospital and up to 20 dying last year.
The research, which is being conducted at labs around the world, centres around finding ways to or dampen down allergic reactions.
Symptoms, such as rashes, itching and swelling, occur when the immune system reacts badly to a food, a pollen or something else 'foreign' to the body.
Scientists have worked out that the problem lies not in the entire food or pollen grain, but in proteins that form just a small part of them.
They are now looking for the key proteins, studying their structures and then recreating them in harmless forms.
Injected into the body, these manmade proteins could prevent the immune system from going into overdrive the next time it encounters a rogue pollen or food.
French and German firms have successfully identified the critical proteins in pollen and are now testing a treatment on humans.
The result could be an effective hay fever treatment in three to five years. A therapy for asthma is expected to follow shortly afterwards, the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich heard yesterday.
In New York, scientists at Mount Sinai Hospital are making inroads into the protein responsible for peanut allergy. Other researchers are trying to tackle the problem by keeping the immune system in check.
Studies have shown that people regularly exposed to bacteria and other germs - such as farmers who drink unpasteurised milk - are up to ten times less likely to develop allergies.
It is thought that some of the bacteria in the milk dampen down the immune system, and so prevent it from reacting badly to pollen and other foreign invaders.
Scientists at Sussex-based drug firm Allergy Therapeutics are among those looking at ways to coax these bugs into keeping the immune system in check.
Dr van Ree, of Amsterdam University, said the two approaches will be combined by the end of the decade - creating a cure for hay fever.
'I think that is realistic within three to five years,' he said.
'For peanut allergy, from the product in the lab to the product in the market, we will need at least seven years.'
Pills for shellfish and other food allergies would follow.
The treatments, aimed at known allergy sufferers, could be cures. Alternatively, they could ease symptoms, or stop the condition in its tracks for several years, after which treatment could be started again.
Created as injections, tablets, or mouth drops, it is likely they will have to be given regularly over several years in order to be effective.
Further hope comes from the research into vaccines, which, given at an early enough age, could prevent people from ever developing allergies.
With American researchers working on a jab that protects against hay fever and dust and house mite allergies, and British scientists looking at peanut allergy, experts are confident vaccines will be available in ten years.
The progress at home and abroad has been welcomed by UK experts. A spokesman for charity Asthma UK said: 'Many people with asthma have allergies. Ninety per cent of people with asthma say dust triggers their asthma and 79 per cent tell us their symptoms are triggered by pollen.
'Therefore the development of successful vaccines against allergies would be welcomed by Asthma UK and we look forward to seeing future results of trials.'
David Reading, director of the Anaphylaxis Campaign, said: 'Food allergy, in particular, is potentially life-threatening and is a total nightmare for many people.
'Imagine the burden on a family if a child is rushed to Casualty in a really bad way after having a life-threatening-reaction.
'About a quarter of a million children in the country have a peanut allergy. Not necessarily all of them will have a life-threatening reaction but it is very unpredictable and they have got to be prepared that a severe reaction could occur at some stage.
'Anything that is going to offer hope for the future is what we are looking for.'
It is also feared that Britain does not have the network of allergy clinics and specialist doctors needed to diagnose the allergies and prescribe the appropriate treatments when they become available.
Dr Clare Mills, an allergy expert from the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, said: 'They are going to be costly and that is going to be a problem for the NHS. But I believe we can get treatments in the near future.'