Promising Results: Recent Research Inspires Hope for Potential Food Allergy Vaccine

About four years ago, immunologist Jessica O’Konek, Ph.D., a research professor at the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center, made the switch from traditional vaccine development to investigating the idea of a vaccine that could potentially provide long-term protection against food allergies. Her research focuses on the immune mechanisms of food allergy: determining what they are and how we can change them, and using this knowledge to develop therapeutics. Here she answers seven questions about her work.

Jessica O'Konek, Ph.D., looks at a piece of equipment in her lab
Jessica O'Konek, Ph.D., is exploring how a vaccine might one day treat food allergies in just a few doses.

How did you first get involved with food allergy research?

For many years, one of the main focuses of our larger research group has been on the development of vaccine adjuvants or substances added to vaccines to boost the body’s immune response. I began studying a nanoemulsion vaccine adjuvant that was developed here at Michigan and has been developed to be delivered intranasally, through a needle-free nasal spray.

Through the course of this work, we noticed that the type of immune response induced by nanoemulsion vaccines is directly the opposite of the responses that drive food allergy. This led us to investigate if we could use the nanoemulsion to create vaccines that could turn off allergic immunity.

What results have you found so far?

Our results so far have been very exciting. We have demonstrated that the vaccine we are studying, which is composed of the nanoemulsion formulated with the food allergen, can redirect established allergic immune responses and prevent subsequent allergic reactions in a few mouse models of food allergy.

Our results demonstrate that we are able to suppress established allergy, so it should work regardless of how long a patient has had the allergy or how old they are. Once we performed the proof-of-concept studies showing that our vaccine could work, we have been focused on determining how it works.

We had a paper that was published earlier this year where we investigated the mechanism by which this vaccine works to suppress allergic immunity. We found one particular molecule that is critical for the mediation of this protection, but there are still quite a lot of other steps of the pathway that we are still investigating.

Why is this area of research important to the field of food allergy and how is it making a difference?

While there are therapeutics currently showing promise in clinical trials, so far nothing has been shown to work for all food allergies and all patients. If we compare the vaccine that we are developing with the things on the horizon in clinical trials for food allergy, what we are doing is completely different. Unlike immunotherapies that require daily exposure for years, we’re demonstrating that just a few doses of the vaccine can change the immune response and protect for quite a long time.

From a patient standpoint — if we can get to that point — this would mean an easier therapeutic, requiring fewer visits to the clinic. You would think of it more like what you think of for a traditional vaccine, where you have to go to your physician’s office for your booster immunizations — but they would be months apart, not every single day.

“My hope is that results like ours are encouraging for families and give them hope for what is to come in the future. This is a very exciting time in food allergy research, and there are many things in development.”

Jessica O'Konek, Ph.D.

What hope does your research represent for families?

My hope is that results like ours are encouraging for families and give them hope for what is to come in the future. This is a very exciting time in food allergy research, and there are many things in development.

While we don’t know when our vaccine would be available to patients in a clinical trial, the results we have in mouse models have been very impressive. We’re excited and working hard to try to push the work forward to develop an effective therapeutic.

What direction do you see your research taking in the future?

The current directions of our research encompass two main goals: to develop a therapeutic that will hopefully lead to a clinical trial and to determine the mechanisms by which the vaccine results in protection from allergic reaction.

Determining the mechanism not only helps us understand more about the vaccine we are developing, but more importantly it provides us with clues about what has to change in a food-allergic individual so that they don’t react to the food anymore. Those results that increase our knowledge of the fundamental immunology driving food allergy can be used to design new therapeutics.

What do you wish people understood about your research?

It takes a tremendous amount of time to progress from having an idea to getting it into clinical trials and having an approved therapy. It often takes decades from the time you have your first experiment that shows promise to the time you can get it into the clinic.

That’s not only because it takes a lot of time to do the pre-clinical experiments, but then there’s also lots of regulatory requirements to get approval to perform clinical trials. So while this seems like a long time, it is very important to be diligent in performing all the necessary pre-clinical work to demonstrate efficacy and safety before taking a new therapeutic into humans.

Why are you passionate about this area of research?

One of the best things about researching food allergy is the commitment of advocates and the food allergy community. As a basic scientist, I could sit in the lab and go my whole career without having interactions with people who are directly affected by the disease I am studying. However, since I began working in this field, I have had many opportunities to interact with patients as well as parents and grandparents of children with food allergies through events at our center and at the national level through the patient advocacy group Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

It is fantastic that I get to meet people who are directly affected by food allergy. They are so excited and interested in what we are doing, and that really gives me extra motivation. It makes a tremendous difference.