Researchers Discover New Genes Linked to Allergies and Asthma

A team of international scientists, including researchers from Harvard, contributed to the study.

sampling of allergy medications currently available at cvs in allston. photo by andrea timpano.

sampling of allergy medications currently available at cvs in allston. photo by andrea timpano.

If you suffer from the red-eyed, sneezy, runny-nosed misery that is seasonal allergies, you’re not alone.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology reports that allergies afflict up to 30 percent of the population. Ten percent are living with asthma, a lung disease that inflames airways and complicates breathing. Although there are medications available to treat both conditions, not all people who take these medications experience relief. A new study conducted by an international team of researchers may help to change that.

Along with collaborators from Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have identified 34 genes linked to allergies and asthma. The newly discovered genes also are shown to have strong correlations to an antibody known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE), which activates allergic reactions. To conduct their study, researchers obtained and analyzed blood samples from hundreds of participants, including members of nuclear families and the general population. Their findings were published in the journal, Nature.

Liming Liang, an assistant professor of statistical genetics at Harvard and the study’s lead author, says that the discovery is important because it helps researchers understand how IgE is regulated in the body. By learning more about the underlying biology of this regulation, he says that researchers should be able to identify new drug targets that could lead to more effective medications for allergy and asthma sufferers. Liang says that this may lead to doctors prescribing more appropriate treatments for their patients.

“It’s about personalized medicine. [Understanding the function of IgE] provides a potential way to identify the patients who will be affected the most from existing therapies,” Liang says. “If we can identify those patients that would benefit from certain treatments by predicting their response before starting the therapy, treatments would be more helpful and cost-effective.”

Liang has been working with his collaborators on this subject for a number of years, and says that future research will include enlarging the sample size in order to increase the likelihood of discovering additional genes related to allergies, asthma, and the regulation of IgE. Though scientists have much to learn about the genetic basis for these conditions, Liang says he believes that these recent findings have “very promising potential” to change the pharmaceutical landscape.