As many as one in ten people across the world have a food allergy of some kind, and life doesn’t get any easier once you develop one. You check the menu twice, you quiz the waiters, you scan the small print in the supermarket, and you ask questions when anyone offers you a biscuit. Every meal becomes a risk management assessment, with all the stress that comes with it. It’s a pretty big problem, which is why scientists are constantly trying to figure out new ways to tackle these allergies. The latest such effort led to the discovery of a plant-based compound called formononetin that could finally treat and perhaps even cure food allergies.
Certain foodstuffs such as dairy, soy, wheat, and peanuts not only provide us with essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals, but they can also help us remain healthy and strong through complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and complete protein sources they offer.
Yet to those allergic to any of these foods, it can quickly spell danger in the form of urticaria (hives), shortness of breath and wheezing, and even anaphylaxis. While rare, anaphylaxis could quickly become lethal, especially if the allergic individual does not have epinephrine (also known as an “epi-pen”) on hand to treat the reaction.
An allergy is the response of the body’s immune system to normally harmless substances, such as pollen, foods, or house dust mite. This hypersensitivity causes the body to overreact by producing a disproportionate immune response when contacting an allergen.
It’s not clear what causes allergies or why some people are more predisposed than others. Studies so far have linked both genetic and environmental factors to allergies, and as many as 45 percent of adults develop an intolerance to a foodstuff after they get older. Actually, it seems like allergies are on the rise regardless of gender or ethnic background. According to the findings of a 2017 study, the incidence of shellfish allergies has grown by 7 percent, tree nuts by 18 percent, and peanuts by 21 percent. Shellfish and peanuts are also among the most common food allergies overall.
When the body has an allergic reaction to certain foodstuff, the immune system produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which are responsible for the horrible symptoms. Previously, formononetin had been identified as a potential therapeutic agent because it decreases IgE production.
In a new study, researchers led by Ibrahim Musa, a doctoral candidate in pathology, microbiology, and immunology at New York Medical College, combined advanced computational methods with experiments to gain insights into the relationship between formononetin and allergic reactions. At first, this proved a bumpy ride.
“We started this study in 2020 and completed it in 2021, we had just come out of a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and our institution approved our return to the lab. Getting our lab running efficiently and continuing work under the restrictions were a bit challenging, however, we were also happy to be back in the lab to continue. We did not know if we would be going into another shutdown however, we continued work and enjoyed every day as we continued making progress. Our deliveries were not coming in on time due to global shortage in materials and therefore validating the targets took a bit longer than usual,” Musa told ZME Science.
After scouring pharmacological databases to identify gene and protein targets regulated in food allergies, the researchers validated these targets using cultured cell lines in the lab. These experiments confirmed that formononetin was indeed heavily involved in expressing the gene and proteins that are needed to make IgE.
“Our plant-derived compound formononetin showed promising results in decreasing the production of IgE and, in this study, we showed the targets in the human plasma B cells that are regulated by formononetin. This is a huge step towards understanding the mechanism by which it functions and gives us the confidence to move to the next stage which is an in vivo preclinical study,” said Musa, adding that “Formononetin, unlike omalizumab (FDA approved drug to treat allergic diseases which acts by binding to free IgE in serum), prevents Immunoglobulin E production from B cells by “turning on” or “turning off” specific targets in the cell, making it a more effective therapeutic in the treatment and prevention of allergic diseases long term.”
Musa tells me that as far as he could notice in the in vitro study, there were no obvious side effects or drawbacks to formononetin. But the real test is yet to come. The researchers are now working to study a potential formononetin therapy on mice with peanut allergies.
The researchers will present their findings at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the Experimental Biology (EB) 2022 meeting, to be held April 2–5 in Philadelphia.