Australian researchers have developed a pill that could help prevent a reoccurrence of the disastrous thunderstorm event of 2016, which caused a number of deaths and overwhelmed emergency services.
That incident, which hit Melbourne in November of that year – peak allergy season – and resulted in a tenfold increase in asthma-related hospital admissions, is recognised as the world’s largest thunderstorm asthma event. In the aftermath, the state health department established an epidemic thunderstorm asthma risk forecasting system.
The lethal potential of thunderstorm asthma, caused by high levels of grass pollen interacting with a certain type of storm, entered the public consciousness for the first time in the days and months that followed.
Although rare, the risk such an event poses means this medical breakthrough could be a life-changer and, indeed, a life saver. The new pill, developed by Monash researchers in Melbourne, is actually infused with tiny doses of five grass pollens, aimed at changing the ‘immune memory cells’ of those at risk.
The researchers found that the pill, taken daily over consecutive months in a three-year period, provided long-term protection against allergic reactions, including thunderstorm asthma.
Patients in the study were divided into two groups – one received the pill with micro doses of pollen, dissolved under the tongue before swallowing, and the other received standard therapy such as antihistamines and anti-allergy nasal sprays.
In publishing the results of the study, conducted in collaboration with the Alfred Hospital’s Allergy Clinic and the Burnet Institute, the authors found that the majority of those on the daily pill continued to report benefits two years later.
Professor Menno van Zelm, head of the allergy and clinical immunology laboratory at Monash University, said the treatment, known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), acted to change patients’ immune memory within four months.
Getting a greater understanding of the mechanism behind this could lead to more effective treatments. “Understanding these processes are key to developing new treatments and for producing ways to test whether these new treatments are working, by finding biomarkers of immunity,” he said.
The results were published in the online journal Allergy last week. While the sample size used in the study was small (27 Victorians, of whom 13 received four-month pre-seasonal SLIT for grass pollen allergy), the early indications are very promising.
For many Australians, the release of the study is timely, occurring on the eve of grass pollen season in southern Australia, which typically lasts from October to December.
Prof. van Zelm said the Monash team would now look to expand the research parameters to incorporate other common allergies, such as dust mite, and for food allergies, for which historically the success rate of immunotherapy is lower.
While the research is a positive step, Prof. van Zelm urged some caution. The treatment, he said, “works in many people, but not in everyone”.
The study is part of research funded by a $1.2 million National Health and Medical Research Council grant, which many would agree to be a small price to pay to prevent a recurrence of the tragic thunderstorm asthma event of November 2016.
Do you suffer from allergies during pollen season? What treatments and preventative measures have you found effective? Why not share your experience and thoughts in the comments section below?