Texas Tech University associate professor Harvinder Gill is leading research to help treat dust mite allergens.
Allergies are increasing worldwide. One common way to combat allergies is by getting weekly allergy shots. But these shots can be painful, and a patient has to continue treatment for at least three years, and sometimes for as long as five or six years, in order to feel significant, lasting results.
Texas Tech University's Harvinder Gill, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering housed within the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and the Whitacre Endowed Chair of Science and Engineering, has developed a solution that uses a microneedle patch, which one day may replace allergy shots.
“Instead of a shot, you would wear a small, minimally invasive and pain-free patch with tiny needles called microneedles,” Gill said. “The way this device works is that the tiny microneedles are coated with the allergen, and when these microneedles are inserted into the skin, the moisture underneath the skin helps to dissolve the coatings and leads to allergen delivery into the skin.”
The patch is just about two inches wide – similar to a nicotine patch – and only needs to be worn for 3-5 minutes.
With busy schedules, patients are sometimes unable to go to the clinic and thus end up missing their allergy shot. As a result, their therapy can get reset to a previous dose, which can prolong their treatment time. Gill hopes the microneedle patch, in addition to being painless, will help patients avoid this situation.
“There's a possibility that one could administer the patch on their own at home, and it could be carried by the patients wherever they go so they never have to miss a dose,” Gill said. “Of course, there would be some initial supervision from their doctor to make sure there isn't a severe reaction. But once the doctor deems it fit, the patches could just be given to the patient so they can use it on their own.”
Allergy shots are currently used to treat people who already have allergies. Gill's work currently focuses not only on people with severe allergies but also on those who may be at risk of developing allergies. He said he believes this allergen patch also can be used as a preemptive vaccine for people who have a family history of allergies.
“No one can know beforehand if they are going to suffer from allergies,” Gill said. “The concept of using preemptive vaccines for allergies is more restricted to folks who might be more predisposed to allergies because of their genetic makeup or family history. Many times, patients have allergies but it has not progressed to a severe level. They have milder symptoms such as rhinitis, meaning a runny nose, and allergic conjunctivitis, meaning red eyes. They would be good candidates for the vaccine to prevent their allergies from becoming severe, such as developing into an asthmatic condition.”
Findings published and future possibilities
Gill and his associates, chemical engineering research assistant professor Akhilesh Kumar Shakya and postdoctoral research assistant Chang Hyun Lee, recently had their research paper published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, one of two official journals of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Dust mite allergens are one of the major allergens that wreak havoc. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, these microscopic organisms live on every continent except Antarctica and thrive in warm, humid climates. Though they are only one-quarter to one-third of a millimeter in length, they can cause aggravating symptoms like itchy, red or watery eyes; runny or stuffy nose; sneezing; coughing and itchy skin. If an allergy sufferer also has asthma, then a dust mite allergen could even trigger difficulty breathing, chest tightness or pain and wheezing.
In this published study, Gill and his associates have demonstrated that microneedles coated with dust mite allergen can prevent development of a house dust mite allergy in a mouse model. This study offers proof of concept regarding development of a preemptive allergy vaccine.
“This journal is the top-ranked journal in the field of allergies,” Gill said. “It publishes research that is groundbreaking and can have an extremely high impact on a patient's life.”
Though the potential vaccine is currently designed for only respiratory allergies, there is a possibility it could one day be used to combat food allergies.
“For food allergies, there is no treatment,” Gill said. “There isn't a shot someone can get. If someone has peanut allergies, then they just have to try to avoid contact with peanuts. We are hoping that a microneedle patch may one day help treat peanut and other food allergies just like respiratory allergies.”