Blog post: How is Asthma UK’s research fighting hay fever?

Professor Brian Sutton explains how his team’s research is bringing us closer to a cure for hay fever

How is Asthma UK’s research fighting asthma and hay fever?

Author: Professor Brian Sutton, Professor of Molecular Biophysics
13 June 2017

It won’t be news to many of you that a lot of people with asthma also have hay fever – as many as four in five, according to an Asthma UK survey – or that an allergic reaction to grass, tree or weed pollen can make asthma symptoms worse.

That’s why my team at King’s College London is studying a particularly nasty type of grass pollen. If we can find out more about how it sets off an allergic reaction, even in incredibly tiny amounts, we have a better chance of stopping that reaction and preventing hay fever.

Locks and keys

Using electron cryomicroscopy to examine the allergens in grass pollen, we’re getting a clearer image than ever before of their shape. That matters because the allergen can only cause a reaction if its ‘key’ fits into a ‘lock’ in the antibodies inside us. A treatment to block the ‘locks’ and prevent the allergic reaction could save millions of people from months of increased asthma symptoms and attacks each year.

It’s too soon to talk about a cure for hay fever, but we’re getting closer all the time. Once we understand how the allergen and antibody fit together, we can develop treatments which make it safer for people with a pollen allergy to be exposed to gradually larger amounts of pollen, without having a dangerous allergic reaction.

Real progress

And this isn’t just wishful thinking. A few years ago my team used the same techniques to map the shape of a protein called IgE – without that knowledge, life-saving severe asthma drug Xolair would never have been developed.

It’s thanks to Asthma UK supporters that researchers like me can continue our work; work I believe could save the lives of the three people who still die every single day because of their asthma. By donating today, you could help to make an incredible difference to the work I do, and bring us closer to a world free from asthma. 

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Electron cryomicroscopy:
A technique to see inside things too small for a regular microscope by sending beams of sub-atomic particles through a sample cooled to around minus 200 degrees celsius.

Professor Brian Sutton is a Professor of Molecular Biophysics at King's College London. Asthma + Lung UK funded part of his team's pioneering research that lead to the development of Xolair, a drug that has had a profound effect on the lives of many people with severe asthma. His work focuses on antibody structure and interactions in allergy and asthma.