These days, a sneeze in public can often be followed up by a clumsy assurance that it’s just allergies, and a promise that the offender has been tested for COVID-19.
People with allergies will often agree that it’s an exhausting barrier to both outdoor walks and ordering takeout, but allergies might in fact be a beneficial evolutionary trait.
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Esther Borges Florsheim, an assistant professor at ASU’s Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, is exploring the ways in which the body protects itself against substances that lead to allergies. Her work centers around the mechanisms involved in allergies, from bee venom to nuts, and strives to understand how the immune system attempts to maintain balance within the body.
ASU News spoke with Florsheim about the evolution of immunology and her research goals within the university.
Question: What is immunology?
Answer: Immunology stemmed from microbiology, so most of the things that we know about the immune system are through the immune defenses against pathogens. People usually learn about immunology through infectious diseases. It is clear nowadays that the immune system does more than defend against pathogens. The immune system plays a role in a lot of physiological processes in general, including those like development, aging, even reproduction.
The immune system is also involved in the development of chronic inflammatory disorders such as neurodegenerative diseases, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and so forth. The function of the immune system is much broader now than what we thought before.
Q: Through the lens of evolutionary biology, it seems harmful — as if allergies should not exist. Why might they have developed in the general population? What is the biological advantage?
A: So it’s pretty clear now that genetics alone cannot account for this really big increase in the incidence and prevalence of allergic diseases. This would include things like food allergies or asthma. The presence of allergic diseases is increasing, especially in the United States. The numbers are pretty concerning. It’s expected that one in 13 children nowadays in the U.S. will develop some type of food allergy. We want to be able to explain why it is increasing and why it is so prevalent.
I think it’s heavily related to our modern lifestyle. There’s something about our way of living now that is making us more prone to develop this type of disease. And that’s not only true for allergies, that’s true for autoimmune diseases and age-related diseases.
Q: Where are you at in developing your research lab with ASU?
A: I’m currently starting my lab. Our question is, ‘How can allergies ever be good for you?’ We think that allergies are, at first, beneficial and protective, and that would explain why these reactions evolved. But if they become dysregulated, they can become detrimental. So we want to explore the protective roles of allergies.
Our first idea is to understand how immune cells that are important for allergic diseases, like mast cells, show a distinct tissue signature depending where they live. Why would mast cells from the lung be different from mast cells from the gut, for example? Probably because they contribute to something specific about the tissue function. That’s likely why they acquired the tissue characteristics. I plan to look at how these immune cells alter tissues to react to allergies.
Q: How has COVID-19 affected the field of immunology?
A: The occurrence of this pandemic brought immunology back to the main stage. Now everyone wants to learn about immunology. This COVID pandemic makes it clear how little we know about our immune defenses. It makes us wonder how a small little virus with just a few genes can cause all this trouble and why we don’t have a drug or know all the pathways. Also, I think what scared the public a lot was realizing that scientists don’t have all the answers.
Q: What do you hope to see in the future of immunology?
A: We need diversity in how we think about immunology as a field. This should come from a diverse background of the scientists themselves, as well as from a diverse research topic. We would highly benefit from collaborations with evolutionary biologists, ecologists, philosophers of science, developmental biologists, etc. An organism’s immune system definitely values diversity; the more diverse repertoire you have, the better off you are and likely better adapted to certain environments. So taking this concept from immunology, we can gain so much by bringing people from different backgrounds that we don’t have. We need more ideas, we need more collaborations with different people, different teams. Science is not going to advance without them.