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Birch pollen and food allergies: hope for 400,000 Austrians

(Vienna, 06 March 2012) The birch pollen allergy and the cross-allergies associated with it are among the most common allergic conditions in Austria. Researchers at the MedUni Vienna are tracking down the causes and developing highly effective new vaccines.

In Austria alone, around 400,000 people are affected by a birch pollen allergy and therefore by associated food allergies, in particular allergies to apples, peaches, hazelnuts, carrots and celery. 70 per cent of all people with birch allergy suffer from these cross-allergies. One particular problem is the fact that the food allergy lasts all year round in the majority of sufferers (86 per cent), and not just during the spring pollen season.

Clinical study for new, highly effective vaccine generation begins in autumn

Barbara Bohle from the Institute of Pathophysiology and Allergy Research at the MedUni Vienna is now on the brink of a breakthrough in the quest to create a new, more effective generation of vaccines: “The vaccines we have used so far have one major disadvantage. They work against birch pollen allergies, but only rarely against cross-allergies.” For the new vaccines, Bohle therefore wants to use only the pure allergen, instead of the conventional protein mixture. “We are hopeful of success with this, as well as with the treatment of food allergies,” she says. The researcher will be starting a clinical study in the autumn, in which food allergies will be treated for the first time with the relevant allergen. Says Bohle: “In specific terms, this means, for example, that we’ll be treating an apple allergy with an apple allergen.”

Cross-allergies: the apple doesn’t fall far from the birch tree

The key principles behind this new therapeutic approach come from Heimo Breiteneder from the Institute of Pathophysiology and Allergy Research at the MedUni Vienna. He was able to prove that the birch pollen allergen belongs to a superordinate "super-family" of molecules with the same molecular structure. Breiteneder explains: “Because of the evolution from a common ancestor, there are now around 16,000 known representatives of this type of molecule distributed widely across bacteria, plants and animals. However, only around ten of them act as allergens. As well as the birch pollen allergen, they are also found in the allergens in apples.”

On the tracks of the causes of allergies
Breiteneder assumes that a predecessor of the birch pollen allergen, “Bet v 1” represented a danger for the organism in ancient times which required the organism to respond immediately. “Food allergies, if you like, are the extensions of this mechanism, which is activated by the birch pollen allergen.” Breiteneder continues: “If this assumption is correct, this would represent a further important step in understanding the causes of how allergies develop.” Breiteneder is also a pioneer of allergy research, having identified “Bet v 1” in 1988, a protein in birch pollen that was identified as a trigger of the birch pollen allergy, as the world’s first plant-based allergen at molecular level.

» Infotag zur Allergieforschung im MedUni Wien Kalender