CHICAGO — an idea hatched in a Streeterville, Chicago, pub by two guys sitting over a couple of Friday night beers has led to a treatment that could someday overcome the peanut allergy, a growing and sometimes fatal problem that has bedeviled parents, schools and airlines.
The treatment has so far only worked on laboratory mice, but it looks promising for humans. In fact the same concept shows promise far beyond just the peanut allergy, according to the two researchers who cooked it up. it could be an effective tool to battle all sorts of food allergies and autoimmune diseases that are growing at alarming rates in the world’s healthiest societies — the leading industrialized nations.
The two men behind all this are not your typical barroom philosophers, of course. Stephen Miller, 63, is a Ph.D. who has spent most of his career researching autoimmune diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Scottish-born Paul Bryce, 38, is a Ph.D. specializing in food allergy research. When Bryce arrived at a different research division of the school six years ago, Miller befriended him, and the two often meet to talk shop.
“Most researchers are very secretive about their work until they publish it, fearing somebody will steal their ideas,” Miller said of his collaboration with Bryce. “This is an instance where Paul and I weren’t competing, but we each brought different expertise to bear on the problem.
Much of Miller’s work has focused on multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease in which a patient’s immune system mistakenly identifies myelin, a protective tissue surrounding nerve axons in the brain and spinal cord, as a dangerous pathogen, and so attacks and destroys it.
“It’s like when you strip off the insulation of electrical wiring,” said Miller. “Gradually the brain impulses are no longer conducted along the axons as the myelin sheath is destroyed, and the patient begins to have trouble walking and loss of other physical functions.”
Using mice as models, Miller hit on the idea of taking blood from a mouse with MS symptoms, attaching myelin protein to certain white blood cells in the blood, and infusing the blood back into the mouse’s bloodstream.
“The idea is to convince the patient’s immune system that the myelin is not dangerous and to turn off its attack,” said Miller.
The technique, called antigen-specific tolerance therapy, was so successful in stopping the progression of MS in the mice that it is now being tested on humans at the University of Hamburg in Germany where two of Miller’s research colleagues work.
Early last year Miller was recounting the success of the MS therapy to Bryce at one of their frequent Friday night beer sessions in a pub near the medical school, and suggested maybe it should be tried on food allergies.
“We decided it was a good idea to give it a try and we started in on it the next Monday,” Bryce said. “Within a month we knew we were on to something.”
Bryce had to develop lab mice that were sensitive to peanuts and would suffer the same reactions as allergic humans — hives and swelling and, in more severe cases, constriction of breathing, plummeting blood pressure and shock that can lead to loss of consciousness and death.
In the U.S. each year there are between 15,000 and 30,000 severe reactions to food allergies and 100 to 200 deaths. So far nobody has come up with a safe treatment.
In their experiments, Bryce and Miller drew blood from their peanut allergic mice and attached peanut protein to white blood cells. They then infused the blood back into the mice and fed them peanut extracts that normally would set off severe allergic reactions.
The system increases the number of regulatory T cells in the peanut allergic mouse while “turning off” other cells that cause the allergy, restoring tolerance to peanuts to the immune system.
“We think we have recalibrated the immune system,” said Bryce, “but we’re still trying to understand how it works.”
Bryce and Miller give credit the work to two of their graduate students, Charles Smarr and Chia-Lin Hsu.
Miller cautioned that before their approach can become a viable human medicine, it has to prove itself through years more of animal testing, and, if it survives that, more years of human testing.
“We’re probably looking at three to five years before try it on human patients,” he said of the peanut allergy treatment.
If their peanut allergy treatment works on humans, he said it’s likely their method also could be applied to the burgeoning list of food allergies, and to autoimmune diseases.
“It’s really exciting,” said Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Northwestern’s Institute for Healthcare Studies of Miller’s and Bryce’s work. “Any cure right now would be incredible.”