April 16, 2024

MHWFAC tapped by National Institutes of Health for elite grant

The MHWFAC has been awarded a seven-year CoFAR Cooperative Agreement Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to become one of its 10 centers of food allergy research in the United States.

The NIH”s Consortium on Food Allergy Research (CoFAR) was established by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to support clinical research into food allergy.  It is the leading group of food allergy research centers in the world.

The CoFAR award has been a goal for MHWFAC since its inception,and positions it in the elite tier of food allergy research centers globally. 

“This award identifies the University of Michigan and the MHWFAC as one of the sites where groundbreaking NIH-funded food allergy research will take place,” said James R. Baker Jr., MD, director of the MHWFAC.  In addition to a significant financial award, “being identified as a CoFAR member will likely help us attract additional funding and projects from other governmental agencies, foundations and private corporations.”

In the funded proposal reviewed by NIAID leaders in Washington, DC, Dr. Baker outlined overall facilities and infrastructure associated with the MHWFAC, where clinical and basic research will take place. The proposal also reported the extensive history of food allergy research at the MHWFAC.

In addition, two specific research projects were identified as those that the CoFAR award will support; one is based on a new approach to the clinical diagnosis of food allergy while the other will analyze statistical data from tens of thousands of patients.

Chase Schuler, MD, will serve as a principal investigator in the CoFAR agreement, directing the clinical study components, sample collection, data analysis and interpretation of the results. 

 Dr. Schuler has been leading an innovative study that can predict an anaphylactic reaction as much as 45 minutes in advance, by the amount of water a patient loses via their skin after ingesting a potential allergen. The technique, which uses a special meter that rests on the forearm to measure moisture, can improve the safety of clinical food challenges, and help scientists better understand food-related anaphylaxis.

“There is a huge need to make food challenges safer,” said Dr. Schuler. As investigators discover more via this line of research, “we possibly could stop reactions before they are severe or obvious. This would make food challenges safer, yet still accurate, in telling you whether you are allergic or not.”

The genetic link

Another MHWFAC team is analyzing the link between food allergy and atopic dermatitis, a skin disorder also known as eczema.  In many patients, childhood eczema is a precursor to food allergy, and scientists are working to determine why.

The upcoming study will look at the genomes of thousands of individuals, using existing databases as well as new samples from patients with both disorders, to look for the genetic signatures that underlie both diseases. 

“Our understanding of the shared genetic underpinnings of atopic dermatitis and food allergy remains limited,” said Dr. Baker.  “Additionally, to date, research has identified few ‘risk genes’ for food allergy.  We hope that by studying the substantial overlap of food allergy and eczema, we can better identify those who may be genetically pre-disposed to the disease. 

Johann Gudjonsson, MD, PhD, an internationally recognized clinical geneticist and another principal investigator in the CoFAR project, said the aim is to decipher the genetics of food allergy and atopic dermatitis at the single-cell level. 

“This will allow us to unravel the development of the diseases and the relationship between these conditions at a level that has not been previously achievable,” Dr. Gudjonsson said.

 MHWFAC Scientific Director Nicholas Lukacs, PhD, will collaborate on the study, along with other Michigan Medicine physician-researchers, scientists, nurses, data analysts and a bioinformaticist. 

 “These projects are emblematic of the interdisciplinary approach that we feel most likely to advance discovery in the arena of food allergy,” said Dr. Baker.  “By harnessing the talent of our internationally renowned basic scientists and the insights and ideas of our clinician-investigators, we feel these CoFAR-supported projects will accelerate our understanding of food allergy and provide new options for patients and their families.”