November 2, 2020

Food allergy class engages future teachers, researchers, physicians

Helping students understand food allergy in the context of human disease throughout history is one angle of a unique undergraduate biology course designed by MHWFAC researcher Gary Huffnagle, PhD.

Many people don’t realize that allergies were unheard of in earlier eras, Dr. Huffnagle said, when infectious diseases like smallpox, plague and cholera were prevalent and deadly.

But as humankind has conquered those and other communicable diseases, conditions that arise from hypersensitivity – like food allergy and asthma – became epidemic. 

As a scientist devoted to deciphering the biology of this phenomenon, Dr. Huffnagle is excited to share his knowledge of disease history and how they are driven by the microbiome – the good and bad microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa that live on and in our bodies.

“With the creation of the MHWFAC, and as one of its missions is outreach, this fit right into my love of teaching and my area of expertise,” said Dr. Huffnagle.  “We talk about the science but also history and society – my overarching theme is ‘how did we get here?’

The three-credit class formally known as Immunology, Health and Society (IHS 340) and subtitled “Germ Wars, Asthma and the Food Allergy Epidemic,” meets twice a week for lectures and class presentations.  Study material is supplemented by podcasts, including several by MHWFAC Director James R. Baker, Jr., MD and MHWFAC Scientific Director Nick Lukacs, PhD. 

“This course secures the future of children with food allergy as it trains future teachers, physicians and other professionals to understand its importance,” said Dr. Baker.  “Dr. Huffnagle is the perfect mentor for this course because he communicates so effectively with the students and innately understands the problems of people with food allergies. “

Topics range from the basics of immunology to infectious diseases to modern theories of the mechanisms of allergy, such as the “hygiene hypothesis” that modern cleanliness and low exposure to germs leads to immune disorders like allergies and Type 2 diabetes.

Students are paired up for presentations and must prepare an informational brochure aimed at high school students as their final project.  Many of those electing the class have first-hand experience dealing with allergies, noted Dr. Huffnagle, whose own history of allergy and asthma has informed his scientific curiosity and research career.

“I initially was surprised at the percentage of my students who have food allergy, or have friends or family with food allergy,” he said.  “During one class I was demonstrating an EpiPen trainer and couldn’t remember how to pull off the safety cap – and a student jumped right in with instructions.”

While the course will be offered entirely online in the Winter 2021 term, due to pandemic restrictions, Dr. Huffnagle is working on plans to maximize the interaction as much as possible. 

“The class creates a safe haven for discussion – they contribute tremendously,” he said. “This is how school should be – lowering barriers so students feel comfortable.”

Gary B. Huffnagle, PhD, is the Nina and Jerry D. Luptak Professor at the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center, as well as Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine; and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology.

His research interests for the past two decades include the interaction between opportunistic fungal pathogens, the fungal/bacterial microbiome, and the immune system during respiratory disease and in the development of allergic responses. He co-leads a multi-laboratory research group whose focus is on the immunology, pathobiology and microbiology of mucosal surfaces with interests and expertise encompassing an array of interdisciplinary approaches, including applying high-throughput sequencing and gene expression technologies to biological processes and disease.

Dr. Huffnagle also is also the chair of the inter-college, inter-departmental undergraduate microbiology program at the University of Michigan.  He has written a book for a general audience, entitled The Probiotics Revolution, as well as participated in television, radio, magazine and newspaper interviews on the topic.  In recognition of his efforts in both research and education, Dr. Huffnagle was awarded a Faculty Recognition Award from the President's and Provost's Offices at the University of Michigan in 2010.