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home : life : life May 26, 2016

5/23/2013 7:14:00 PM
Understanding Oklahoma's allergy problem

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America lists Oklahoma City 9th and Tulsa 21st on their list of 2013 Spring Allergy Capitals. For allergy sufferers in the state, "Oklahoma lives up to its reputation of allergy capital of the United States," said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Ken Smith, Ph.D.

"I've had allergies all my life, and Oklahoma's flip-flopping winds can really amplify hay fever," said Smith. "I guess you could say I have a vested interest in my allergy research."

Scientists have been trying to understand allergies for more than a century with varied results, Smith said.

"It's a complex problem and technology has only now advanced to the point where we can generate real answers to the questions scientists are asking," he said.

This big question: Why does the immune system overreact to otherwise harmless substances like pollen, pet dander and certain foods?

When allergens enter the body, the immune system springs into action and creates antibodies to bind to the allergens and sweep them out of the system. The reaction causes histamines to be released into the bloodstream, causing problems including constricted airways, watery eyes, and runny noses.

Smith's aim is to use a technology developed at OMRF to mimic the interaction of these antibodies and allergens. By mapping the location of the interaction that eventually leads to the physical symptoms of allergies, he can find new ways to stop allergic reactions from taking place, and improve current immunotherapy, known as "allergy shots."

Allergies affect more than 60 million Americans. Some only lower a person's quality of life while others, including reactions to peanuts, shellfish or wasp stings, can be life-threatening.

"Current treatments often do nothing more than treat the symptoms, but we're interested in examining the fundamental cause of allergic reactions so we can create better therapies," he said.

And this year might be one of the worst for allergies in Oklahoma. Already in 2013, the Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic has counted many high-pollen days caused by cedar trees and grass. The state's wildly fluctuating weather may lead to an earlier and more severe allergy season.

"I wish I could say that we'll have new and better therapies for allergies next week or even next year," Smith said, "but we're working on it."

In the meantime, people with allergies that are severely affecting their lives should visit an allergist to find out what currently available therapies will work best.

"Many of the medications that have greatly improved the quality of our lives are now available over the counter, but if the symptoms interfere with everyday life, go see an allergist," he said. "This is one disease that is easily treatable, which is one reason the root causes are still poorly understood."

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