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A Sprinkle of Microbes on Cereal Could Suppress Allergies

A new drug that “fine tunes” the immune system is being developed to help prevent asthma and allergies to foods such as peanuts and shellfish.

Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Marshall of The University of Western Australia is developing an oral treatment called Immbalance that is designed to restore balance to the immune system and desensitise allergic responses. Marshall said the drug would harness the immune properties of the common bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which naturally resides in the human gut, to help decrease the allergic response into the normal range.

“Studies in the USA show children infected with Helicobacter have a 45% reduction in allergies and asthma,” Marshall said. “Now in the 21st century, as Helicobacter is disappearing, humans in response have become hyper-reactive to allergies. If we put Helicobacter back in a safe way we can move allergic people back into a normal range. By developing an oral product which contains non-viable Helicobacter we can get the immune advantages that Stone Age man used to get by having live bacteria, with none of the disadvantages.”

Marshall’s company, Ondek, has been developing the drug for the past 7 years. It can be formulated as tablets, capsules, liquids or a powder. “Children could spread the powder on their cereal or put it in a drink and, over the course of a few months, could suppress their allergic response,” Marshall said. “We think it’s going to be 100% safe. It won’t remove your immune system; it will just take the edge off.”

Australia has one of the highest allergy and asthma rates in the world, and over the past 10 years has seen a tenfold increase in referrals for food allergies and a fivefold increase in hospital referrals for food-related allergy or anaphylaxis. “It appears when everything is very clean and children aren’t exposed to enough infectious or non-infectious bacteria, the immune system can get ramped up,” Marshall said. “They then can become more reactive to all kinds of new proteins in their diet or susceptible to pollen in the air.”

Marshall expects to trial the drug on humans within 2 years and hopes to make Immbalance available within 5 years.