What is special about the research environment at the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center?
From my time as the CEO of the national Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), I have a broad perspective of all of the centers across the country focused on food allergy. From that perspective, I can tell you that the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center at the University of Michigan is truly unique, period.
Most of these centers focus on one aspect: immunology, biome or other specific areas of research, whereas our center truly addresses all areas involved in the complex development of food allergy. We work at the interface of all these very complex scientific disciplines, which are all independently important.
However, it is only our center that brings these areas together in a single place to address them with both basic and clinical research. We literally can advance from bench-top studies, to work in animals, and finally to studies in human beings. It is an important and unique way to do research.
What is the research being done in food allergy at the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center?
I think there are three areas where we are concentrating that are very important right now.
One is understanding the fundamental immunology behind food allergy and how the environment interacts with the body’s immune system; looking at the gut microbiome and other factors and how they affect the development of food allergies.
The second is food allergy prevention: looking at ways to alter the immune response through vaccines that can actually turn off allergic immunity even after it’s developed.
A third is looking at ways to ameliorate allergic reactions to protect children when they have allergic reactions so they won’t need epinephrine (EpiPens). These are all going to be very important.
Why is food allergy research important?
Food allergy is an unrecognized epidemic that now involves about 1 in every 12 children. People think food allergy is simply an annoyance, brought on by helicopter parents. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
This is a very bad disease that not only can kill them but alters people’s lives because they cannot eat freely or even feel comfortable going to a birthday party or a soccer game.
Thirty-five years ago, I cared for some of the first patients with AIDS at Walter Reed and NIH. If you told me back then that one day AIDS would be a totally treatable disease with hundreds of drugs available and that we would have nothing to offer children with food allergies except epinephrine autoinjectors, I would not have believed you. That, unfortunately, is the remarkable situation we now face.