Allergens and their role in the allergic immune response


Thomas A. E. Platts-Mills
Allergy Division, PO Box 801355
University of Virginia Health System
Charlottesville, VA 22908-1355, USA
Tel.: +1 434 924 5917
Fax: +1 434 924 5779


Summary:  Allergens are recognized as the proteins that induce immunoglobulin E (IgE) responses in humans. The proteins come from a range of sources and, not surprisingly, have many different biological functions. However, the delivery of allergens to the nose is exclusively on particles, which carry a range of molecules in addition to the protein allergens. These molecules include pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) that can alter the response. Although the response to allergens is characterized by IgE antibodies, it also includes other isotypes (IgG, IgA, and IgG4), as well as T cells. The challenge is to identify the characteristics of these exposures that favor the production of this form of response. The primary features of the exposure appear to be the delivery in particles, such as pollen grains or mite feces, containing both proteins and PAMPs, but with overall low dose. Within this model, there is a simple direct relationship between the dose of exposure to mite or grass pollen and the prevalence of IgE responses. By contrast, the highest levels of exposure to cat allergen are associated with a lower prevalence of IgE responses. Although the detailed mechanisms for this phenomenon are not clear, it appears that enhanced production of interleukin-10 in response to specific Fel d 1 peptides could influence the response. However, it is striking that the animal sources that are most clearly associated with decreased responses at high allergen dose are derived from animals from which humans evolved more recently (∼65 million years ago). Although the nose is still recognized as the primary route for sensitization to inhalant allergens, there is increasing evidence that the skin is also an important site for the generation of IgE antibody responses. By contrast, it is now evident that delivery of foreign proteins by the oral route or sublingually will favor the generation of tolerance.