Examining the link between the brain and food allergies
Research and Therapeutics
When her 8-month-old son was diagnosed with a food allergy after he ate some hummus with sesame and vomited, Christine Olsen, MD, wanted to understand his reaction better.
“As a doctor myself, I knew from medical school and neuroscience class that a specific part of the area … in the brain is involved when someone vomits,” says the Food Allergy Science Initiative (FASI) director. “I distinctly remember this because I found it fascinating that it wasn’t the stomach.”
Three allergy specialists later, Olsen remained baffled, so she helped establish FASI in 2016 to advance knowledge of the biology of food allergies. Originally part of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the nonprofit became a separate entity in 2021. It recently awarded two grants totaling $1.4 million to Harvard Medical School researchers who are doing more in-depth studies into the link between the brain and food allergies.
We believe there is a cure for food allergies and that foundational research is the path to that cure.
Stephen Liberles, AB ’94, AM ’96, PhD ’00, a professor of cell biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, received $1 million to investigate how gut nerves “talk” to the brain with resultant allergic disease/anaphylaxis symptoms, such as vomiting. Liberles says that sensory information from the gastrointestinal tract controls feeding, digestion, and host defense. Diverse gut-to-brain signals emanate from primary sensory cells called enteroendocrine cells, which survey the gut’s contents.
“He is also studying specialized cells in the gut that ‘sense’ food allergens and, using a genetic toolbox to see if changes to the cell change function, perhaps we can ‘reverse’ food allergies with these techniques,” Olsen says.
Isaac Chiu, AB ’02, PhD ’09, an associate professor of immunology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, received $400,000 to examine the specialized sensory nerve cells in the gut that researchers at FASI believe may help regulate food allergy entry and immune responses. He is also partnering with another FASI collaborator to evaluate sensory neurons in the skin responsible for itch, and allergy-related diseases such as eczema.
Chiu’s laboratory will be performing experiments that attempt to clarify how neurons regulate gut immune responses with relevance to food allergy outcomes.
“We know that a lot of people with eczema are at risk of developing food allergies,” Olsen says. “This connection between the skin and gut, and development of systemic food allergies, which we believe could be related to the nervous system, is being studied. This will hopefully prevent the development of disease as well as lead to treatments.”
FASI’s ultimate goal: a world without food allergies.
As Olsen says, “We believe there is a cure for food allergies and that foundational research is the path to that cure.”
The Food Allergy Science Initiative is the only global entity advancing a collective of academic, industry partners, philanthropists, and parents dedicated to food allergy discoveries.