Most of the important mammal-derived respiratory allergens, as well as a milk allergen and a few insect allergens, belong to the lipocalin protein family. As mammalian lipocalin allergens are found in dander, saliva and urine, they disperse effectively and are widely present in the indoor environments. Initially, lipocalins were characterized as transport proteins for small, principally hydrophobic molecules, but now they are known to be involved in many other biological functions. Although the amino acid identity between lipocalins is generally at the level of 20–30%, it can be considerably higher. Lipocalin allergens do not exhibit any known physicochemical, functional or structural property that would account for their allergenicity, that is, the capacity to induce T-helper type 2 immunity against them. A distinctive feature of mammalian lipocalin allergens is their poor capacity to stimulate the cellular arm of the human or murine immune system. Nevertheless, they induce IgE production in a large proportion of atopic individuals exposed to the allergen source. The poor capacity of mammalian lipocalin allergens to stimulate the cellular immune system does not appear to result from the function of regulatory T cells. Instead, the T cell epitopes of mammalian lipocalin allergens are few and those examined have proved to be suboptimal. Moreover, the frequency of mammalian lipocalin allergen-specific CD4+ T cells is very low in the peripheral blood. Importantly, recent research suggests that the lipocalin allergen-specific T cell repertoires differ considerably between allergic and healthy subjects. These observations are compatible with our hypothesis that the way CD4+ T-helper cells recognize the epitopes of mammalian lipocalin allergens may be implicated in their allergenicity. Indeed, as several lipocalins exhibit homologies of 40–60% over species, mammalian lipocalin allergens may be immunologically at the borderline of self and non-self, which would not allow a strong anti-allergenic immune response against them.
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