Researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, its partner institutions and Yale School of Medicine have launched an initiative to tackle the science of food allergies, a growing public health threat that affects the lives of hundreds of millions worldwide. The Food Allergy Science Initiative (FASI), centered at the Broad, taps the combined resources of participating academic and research institutions to help answer key scientific questions surrounding food allergies, the causes of which remain little-understood.
FASI aims to accelerate research into this field and enable the development of new diagnostics and treatments through a coordinated effort that brings together specialists from a variety of disciplines including immunology, gastroenterology, microbiology, computational biology, molecular biology and genetics, as well as bioengineering to tackle key questions related to food allergy. The FASI scientific team is leveraging the Broad's expertise in genomics and single-cell technologies to tackle five fundamental questions about food sensitivities:
- Cellular landscape of the gut: How do epithelial and immune cells in the gut sense and respond to food allergens? So far, our scientists have used single-cell sequencing to map cell populations in the mouse small intestine—and identify how they respond to immune threats.
- Mechanisms of allergen sensing: How does the body determine how to react to different food components, and how does it determine whether those components are healthy and harmful? How do the gut lining barrier and the immune system manage these sensing mechanisms, and how do they trigger dramatic allergic responses? Can these mechanisms be ‘reprogrammed’ to avoid hypersensitive reactions to food allergens?
- Immune response to allergens: How do allergens activate the immune response? What kinds of immune responses are triggered by food allergens, and what are the normal functions of these responses? How can these responses be suppressed, altered, or neutralized? Our studies have revealed additional interactions between the nervous and immune systems at surface barriers like the lungs and gut, suggesting novel therapeutic pathways that could help restore balance and prevent allergic reactions.
- Microbiota and its role in food allergy: To what extent do the gut microbiota influence food sensitivies and allergic reactions? Are there specific elements of the microbiome that can promote or prevent food allergy? Can the microbiota, or some of its products, be harnessed to reverse the condition?
- Clinical and translational projects: Can the make-up of the immune system’s cellular ecosystem inform diagnosis and prognosis of food allergy? Are there changes in the microbiome during infancy and early in life that influence risk for food allergy? Can we identify new, more accurate biomarkers that could aid in diagnosis or treatment?
The initial supporters who helped launch the initiative are Ellie and Brian Chu, Karen and Farhad Nanji, Christine Olsen and Robert Small, the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, Betsy and Martin Solomon, and Lesley Solomon and Derek Hibbard. Together they have committed approximately $10 million. The seed funding has enabled researchers to come together under the FASI umbrella to start tackling the challenge of food allergy with a broader scientific perspective, as not only a mistargeted immune response, but also as a natural defense mechanism that has gone awry.
Initial participating institutions: Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Yale University School of Medicine; Boston Children's Hospital; Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH); Harvard Medical School (HMS); Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH); and MIT.
Current Scientific Leadership: Ruslan Medzhitov (Yale); Vijay Kuchroo (Broad, HMS, BWH); J. Christopher Love (Broad, MIT, MGH); Hans Oettgen (Boston Children's Hospital, HMS); Aviv Regev (Broad, MIT); Wayne Shreffler (MGH, HMS); and Ramnik Xavier (Broad, MGH, MIT, HMS).