Food Allergy Awareness Week 2021
Closer Every Day:
Why Allergy Patients Should View the Future With Optimism
May 12th, 2021
At Ukko, we see an increasingly brighter future for those affected by food allergies. There is a groundswell of focus, effort, and dollars directed at a problem that affects millions on a daily basis and causes more than 40 percent of children to experience severe reactions like anaphylaxis annually. And the result will be a broad array of options and relief for patients -- from diagnostics to promising new drug therapies and regimens like Ukko’s.
In honor of National Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month, we sat down with three experts -- JJ Vulopas, an allergy sufferer and author; Lisa Gable, CEO of FARE, the largest private funder of food allergy research and advocacy; and Dr. Edwin Kim, an immunologist at University of North Carolina and Director of UNC Food Allergy Initiative -- to share their perspectives and optimism about the rapidly approaching inflection point for allergy relief.
When JJ Vulopas turned two, he ate a sour cream-and-onion potato chip at his birthday party in the split-second his parents’ backs were turned. One severe anaphylactic reaction and scary emergency room visit later and his life was forever changed.
“As a young child, you have to rely on others to keep you safe and that’s even more important when you have food allergies,” said Vulopas, who was the only child in his entire school district with a severe allergy issue at the time. “My allergies almost became who I was, forming a psychological and social shell around me.”
It wasn’t until middle school and high school that JJ worked to define himself with friends and family for all the things he could do that expanded well beyond the limitations of his allergies. Still, his tree nut and milk allergies will always be a factor even as an adult. “The reality is we have to turn to science -- it’s the only thing we have now,” said Vulopas, now an author and founder of The Land of Can, a food allergy resource organization. “I’m fully dependent on technology breakthroughs and innovation to make any real changes in my food-allergic lifestyle.”
That’s why, he said, Ukko represents reassurance and possibility. “It’s not just the incredible innovation and technology that’s going on at Ukko,” said Vulopas. “It’s the sense that even though there’s so much we don’t know, we’re still learning so much every year -- and all these baby steps being taken by biotech, pharma, academia, and advocacy groups are accumulating to provide a wonderful sense of hope.”
Dr. Edwin Kim, Professor and Medical Director of the University of North Carolina Allergy & Immunology Clinic, agrees that breakthroughs are needed on multiple fronts.
“At the simplest level, we don’t know why allergies happen but the number of people with allergies is much greater than even twenty years ago and the number is rising,” said Kim. “And, in terms of interventions, we’re still at the infancy stage. Strict avoidance of allergens remains the best approach we have.”
But, Kim notes, great strides have been made in immunotherapy approaches to allergies, which expose an allergic person to their trigger -- say, a peanut -- in a controlled fashion to retrain the immune system to react less and, ultimately, not at all. “We’ve had a century’s worth of experience in using immunotherapy to allergens like dust, animals and pollen,” he observed. “So there’s a great foundation for taking that concept and applying it to food allergies to hopefully drive similar results.”
Kim cited a broad range of approaches that may make a difference, including the first peanut allergy immunotherapy drug for children recently approved by the FDA. “We’re now in the phase where we need to continue conducting studies and then design the next generations of food allergy treatment,” he noted. “There’s a big influx of industry partners coming in to help because there is great need and great potential.”
Ukko is one such partner, with a new therapeutic that’s about to enter clinical trials after building one of the largest clinically-validated molecular maps of food allergies. “Its investigational immunotherapy focused first on peanuts could change lives,” said Kim, who advises the company. “Ukko is engineering peanut proteins that are less reactive, which is significant progress.”
In the future, Kim predicts that biologics will exist to treat multiple food allergies at once -- and perhaps even other related afflictions like asthma and eczema. And a concurrent approach that tackles the allergen itself also represents potential, he said.
Lisa Gable, CEO of FARE, the largest private funder of food allergy research and advocacy, is similarly bullish about the future of food allergy solutions. “Five years ago, food allergies were a nascent disease category,” she observed. “Today, there is so much opportunity -- in agriculture, technology, artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals, gene editing, biotech, the list goes on. We’re at the cusp of having multiple solutions for the 85 million Americans who are impacted by food allergies. I’m excited by the work Ukko is doing.”
The rapid development of vaccines for Covid-19 has also demonstrated just how fast progress can be made with new and creative approaches. “It took incredible willpower across the globe, with everyone working in collaboration and trying things that have turned out to be game changers,” said Gable, whose organization also organizes events around Food Allergy Awareness Week. “From pre-competitive data to using AI to shorten the process to running clinical trials in different ways, we saw how much can be done in a short period and we could bring some of those elements to bear to address food allergies.”
Gable stressed the importance of the patient voice in accelerating meaningful progress in the food allergy space. “The regulatory approval process wasn’t designed to bring the new biologics we need to market quickly enough -- and we need a new track in order to move solutions forward to the patient,” she said. “For now, however, the FDA regulatory process requires patient data. I encourage all those with allergies to participate in our patient registry so we can make sure your voices and stories are heard.”
Vulopas, Kim and Gable are energized by the very real promise of a future where not just one solution for allergy sufferers will exist but many, whether it’s oral immunotherapies, brand-new crop variants, or better and safer foods for grocery stores and restaurants. In the meantime, Ukko continues to push forward in part with the help of its Patient Community, which ensures the patient point of view, concerns, and experiences are shared through honest dialogue at every point in the development journey.
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