Grant will fund research projects aimed at uncovering key insight into life-threatening disease affecting one in 10 Americans
FARE grants $15 million to Broad for deciphering brain–gut connections in food allergy
FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), the world’s largest private funder of food allergy research, has awarded a three-year, $15 million grant to the Food Allergy Science Initiative (FASI) at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to support a three-year project “Untangling Neuroimmune Communications in Food Allergy.” This grant was made possible by the support of FARE board member Christine Olsen and her husband Robert Small, with funds matched by FARE.
The interdisciplinary research team, led by world renowned immunologist, Ruslan Medzhitov, includes scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, Yale School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Mount Sinai, and Rockefeller University.
Food allergies occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly identifies a food protein as a threat and triggers a response. When the immune system then attacks the food, the resulting allergic reaction can cause mild, localized symptoms, or it can affect multiple organ systems in the potentially life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. Once considered rare, food allergy has become increasingly common in recent decades and now affects one in 10, or 32 million, Americans, resulting in an emergency room visit once every three minutes in the U.S.
“Thirty-two million Americans currently live with potentially life-threatening food allergies, affecting up to 85 million families across the country every day, and while this number continues to climb, there is so much more we do not yet understand about the complexities of this disease,” explains Bruce Roberts, Chief Research, Science and Innovation Officer of FARE. “This innovative project between FARE and FASI will advance the field of food allergy research in exciting new directions that may reveal new potential targets for treatments.”
Currently, diagnosing and treating food allergy is a major challenge: allergic reactions are the primary means of diagnosis, and treatment is limited to avoiding known allergy-causing foods and epinephrine injections, which are only administered once an allergic reaction has been triggered. Understanding the basic mechanisms that drive the allergic response to food is necessary for developing new treatments.
Using a suite of innovative molecular tools developed over the last decade, the project is structured around three primary goals:
1) To decode the molecular mechanisms through which the gut senses allergens and create high-resolution maps of neurons in the gut;
2) To uncover the networks and communication pathways by which the gut and the brain speak to each other to either promote or suppress allergic inflammation; and,
3) To use the latest imaging tools to create a complete picture of all these players in the brain and gut, visualizing their spatial organization.
“The interplay of the brain, the gut and the immune system is largely uncharted territory for researchers,” Ruslan Medzhitov, director of FASI, principal investigator on the grant and the Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine as well as an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “As we map these connections, we expect to find hidden details that no one has anticipated and leads for diagnostics and therapeutics that will ultimately make life safer and simpler for children and adults with food allergies.”
FARE’s grant to the Broad Institute will enable researchers to identify and explore how the brain, digestive system, and nervous system together examine food in the gut and determine whether or not to trigger an allergic reaction. Understanding this crucial decision-point is key to developing treatments someday that can stop an allergic reaction before it even happens.
This work will also address other important questions, including why some individuals can develop allergy-related antibodies to foods without having reaction symptoms and why symptoms vary so widely among allergic individuals, and even from one reaction to the next.
“We will likely uncover a potential treasure trove of clinically relevant insights,” said Ramnik Xavier, one of the scientific leaders of FASI. “Once we know where the key players are positioned in healthy gut tissue, we can identify, understand and ultimately manage their organizational changes in food allergy.” Xavier is a core institute member of the Broad Institute, director of the immunology program at Broad and member of the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“We now strongly believe that understanding this interplay between the nervous and immune systems will lead us to the true culprits of food allergy and develop the diagnostics and treatments that will save lives,” said Vijay Kuchroo, institute member of the Broad, the Samuel L. Wasserstrom Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and senior scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Kuchroo is also on the FASI scientific leadership team.
FASI supports foundational research that aims to transform the field of food allergy science and lead to new therapies and cures. We currently have a national network of scientists at leading labs working collaboratively on this mission. FASI convenes researchers from a variety of disciplines, broadening beyond traditional allergy researchers to include other fields such as gastroenterology, neuroscience, engineering and immunology. Bringing together such a diverse team of specialists, many of whom have been instrumental in pioneering new technologies like single-cell sequencing, will help researchers find innovative solutions that overcome the fundamental hurdles of food allergy research.