By Allergen Bureau

NZ’s ‘groundbreaking’ discovery of missing allergy link

A missing piece in the link between the skin and the development of food allergies has been discovered by a team from Wellington’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

Immunologists have long been aware that exposure to allergens through the skin impacts on someone’s propensity to develop food allergies. Increasingly, allergists report seeing people with severe allergies to food-derivatives found in skin products.

The new research has found that a molecule called IL-13 that primes cells for an immune response is constantly produced in skin cells. When released in response to cellular damage from allergens or parasites, IL-13 acts as a switch that triggers an inflammatory response.

Previously thought to be produced only when necessary, IL-13 has now been found to be always present in dendritic cells in the skin. This is unlike dendritic cells found elsewhere in the body where IL-13 is not found all the time. This finding suggests IL-13 and immune cells in the skin play a much larger role in the onset of allergies than previously thought.

This discovery is the cumulation of several years of research supported by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

In media reports announcing the discovery, one of the study authors, Dr Maia Brewerton, expresses how important it is to consider what products are used on skin, particularly for the very young or people with damage to the skin barrier such as eczema.

Reference: Mayer et al. 2021. Nature Immunology. DOI: 10.1038/s41590-021-01067-0

For the full media release, see the Malaghan Institute website. For additional reporting go to the New Zealand Herald.