Science - February 12, 2004

Wageningen declares war on allergens

Just imagine: we could help millions of hay fever sufferers by replacing grass varieties that cause the allergy by a hypoallergenic gentech variety. The day that this becomes a reality is perhaps not so far away, as became clear at the symposium held to mark the official opening of the Wageningen Allergy Consortium.

The Wageningen Allergy Consortium is financed by the five Sciences Groups and the executive board of Wageningen UR. Although it does not yet have a plan for the total eradication of hay fever causing plants, as is being worked on in Australia, the researchers involved are working on similar kinds of projects. Professor Huub Savelkoul, initiator of the Allergy Consortium, explains: “Plant Research International has already developed hypoallergenic apples, using both biotechnology and breeding techniques. Researchers discovered that breeders have unintentionally bred apples that over the years contain increasingly high concentrations of allergens. Consumers want big, round, shiny apples, and it turns out that these tend to contain more allergenic proteins than the smaller less impressive apples of old.”

Demand for foods that do not cause allergic reactions is growing fast. “One in four children has an allergy,” says Savelkoul. “But we don’t know why this is. What we do know is that if you are allergic to something as a child, you may well develop additional allergies as an adult. This is why we don’t only look at diet, but also environmental factors.” Social scientists also have a role to play, developing information strategies. “You become allergic as a result of a combination of genetic susceptibility and sudden exposure to high concentrations of allergenic substances. If you avoid extreme exposure you reduce the risk of becoming allergic.” Savelkoul cites the example of dust mites, to which everyone is exposed in the home. If you use the same pillow to sleep on for four years, half of its weight will consist of dust mites after that time. But if you air your bedroom for an hour each day, you will get rid of many of the mites, as they do not survive draughts.

One thing the Allergy Consortium will not be doing is overstepping the boundaries, for instance by producing medical tests. That is not a Wageningen specialty, and by concentrating on Wageningen disciplines the consortium hopes to be able to work more closely with industry. The food industry is faced with the dilemma that it wants to introduce more and more exotic produce, but people are becoming more and more allergic to more things. As well as applied research though, the consortium also plans to do fundamental research on how allergies arise, which means more focus on the human immune system. All big plans, but then it is the biggest allergy centre in the Netherlands. Savelkoul: “We now have five PhD students who started in December, so we can really start to develop new knowledge. Through Dr Harry Wichers at Agrotechnology & Food Innovations we have joined a British initiative that is recognised in Brussels as an integrated project. Our future looks rosy.”

Willem Koert