The Challenge

Food allergy is a severe public health threat facing nearly 9 percent of the U.S. population—31 million people—and an additional 17 million people in Europe. Unfortunately, many of those who suffer are children, and the risk is growing. Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies in children increased by 50%.

In the U.S., food allergy reactions result in an ER visit once every three minutes—and approximately 200 deaths per year. Yet despite the seriousness of this condition, treatment options are essentially nonexistent. The only approved course of action remains to avoid the triggering foods. When accidental exposure occurs, the only available course of action is treatment with epinephrine. And current diagnostic methods are risky, because they involve exposing patients to allergens that could cause severe reactions.

Scientists shockingly don’t know much about how the disease starts: How does the gut learn to recognize food as a threat? How do immune cells trigger dangerous responses to particular foods? And what role do the microbes that live in our gut play in the allergic response? These are among the many fundamental mysteries remaining to be solved.

We believe our best hope for a breakthrough is to understand the underlying biological basis of food allergy, and to leverage these insights to transform advances in diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.

The Food Allergy Science Initiative (FASI) at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is the first coordinated effort to create a field of study around food allergy. We have assembled a team of experts across a wide variety of disciplines—from gastroenterology to immunology, from the clinic to the bench, and from computational biology to engineering. Bringing together these specialists will result in innovative solutions that overcome the fundamental hurdles of food allergy research. One such solution is the use of new technologies we have pioneered, including single-cell sequencing, to crack open food allergy research.

Our team leverages talent and resources from MIT, Harvard, the Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospitals, Yale, the University of Massachusetts, and beyond. The collective effort of our community, coming together to address this scientific challenge, will stimulate global interest in the biology of food allergies, bringing even more talent and energy into the field.

Our combination of deep biological expertise, innovative engineering, and open data sharing is a model of success that the Broad has already pioneered in related disease areas such as inflammatory bowel disease. This experience makes the Broad itself—with its deep ties in Boston’s biomedical ecosystem—the ideal setting for this transformative venture.

Food allergy continues to threaten millions of children and adults, but we don’t understand why it’s becoming more common—or how we can best treat it. Unless we understand the underlying biological basis of the disease now, there will be no therapeutic progress. Now is the time to apply these tools to change the future of food allergy.

We have, for the first time, access to the tools that can allow us to understand the disorder at unprecedented levels of cellular and molecular detail. These are the same tools that have allowed us to crack open other immunological disorders—such as autoimmune diseases like inflammatory bowel disease—and we are well-positioned to leverage them to attack food allergy.

For example, one of these key tools is single-cell sequencing, which enables researchers to understand the genetic programs driving the behavior of individual cells for the very first time. This powerful approach allows scientists to go from casting a wide net to shooting a precise arrow. That means they can understand which cells are involved in triggering the allergic response and the genes necessary to do so—paving the way to new therapies and diagnostics that target these cells and genes.

Right now, our team is focused on uncovering the key cell types and interactions shaping the allergic response to food that should be harmless. We will:

  • Learn how the body senses allergens
  • Understand the response that allergens trigger
  • Pinpoint the immune and gut cells that contribute to the allergy response, and unravel the mechanisms responsible for this behavior
  • Determine the influence of the gut microbiome on food allergy

Towards these goals, we have already begun identifying cells in the gut that respond to external threats and specific immune cells that react to allergens. We are also characterizing the interactions between immune cells and their environment.

Our goal is to make a difference in patients’ lives, but that won’t be possible without their partnership. For that reason, we will engage thousands of food allergy patients and their families in our research by empowering them to share their clinical information and samples for research.

FASI will crack open the basic biology of food allergy, and we believe this deeper understanding will spur the creation of an entirely new field.

We’re eager to tackle this urgent challenge, and grateful for philanthropic support that allows us to do so. If you are interested in propelling our work as a partner in the FASI community, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please reach out to Anna Silverberg for more information.