Would you know what to do if someone around you was having an allergic reaction to peanuts or shellfish? Probably not. Food allergies aren't encountered every day, but being aware of them is important. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans currently suffer from food allergies, and awareness and prevention are cited as the best defenses against frightening and live-threatening episodes. Still, food allergies don't get a whole lot of play by means of media attention of funding.
But change is coming. Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine has given special attention to the topic through its Food Allergy Research Consortium. Northwestern alumnus Anthony Melchiorre, along with his wife Andrea Melchiorre, have made a generous multi-million dollar gift to support a fellowship fund and also research initiatives within the Consortium.
"People who suffer from food allergies need their friends, families, and people at work and in public placed to better understand their malady and to help keep them safe," said Andrea. "By supporting Northwestern, we want to help get trusted, lifesaving information out there and inspire others to do the same."
The Food Allergy Research Consortium is geared toward a new understanding of the causes, genetic susceptibilities, impact, and treatment of food allergies. By implementing strategies focused on public health and epidemiological issues, combined with clinical investigation and mechanistic science, physician-scientists at Northwestern Medicine are striving to halt the increase in food allergies by ensuring better and more effective diagnoses and developing cutting-edge treatments.
"We have a strong and emerging group of dedicated investigators who have joined forces to pursue an understanding of, and ultimately therapeutic management of, food allergy," notes Robert Schleimer, Ph.D., chief of the Division of Medicine-Allergy-Immunology. “The Melchiorres’ generosity is very exciting, and it shows their understanding that, ultimately, new treatments can only be generated from new understandings of the underlying disease process."
One study directly supported by the Melchiorres’ generosity involves mapping genetic associations in families where food allergies are present. Using advanced genomic sequencing capabilities to identify the genes responsible for food allergy, researchers can begin to map pathways and mechanisms that come together to explain food allergies.
“In food allergy, we still know very little about what tips the balance between tolerating foods and reacting to foods, or even what orchestrates why one patient might have a mild reaction while another has a severe one—we plan to change that," said Paul Bryce, Ph.D., who leads the basic science research arm of the consortium." While food allergy doesn’t always run in families, we believe that by focusing on those families where it does, we increase our likelihood of identifying new pathways in the biology of food allergy and that this approach can feed a pipeline of future therapies.”
The team also is using the latest science to understand why the immune system becomes reactive to foods and how these reactions then progress. This work has led to discoveries that are targets for the next generation of allergy treatments.
“These studies need resources to get there so that they don’t die before they have a chance," said Anthony Melchiorre. "Private funding is the beginning, and we are happy to be a part of it.”