Queen's University Queen's University

Anne Ellis

Cats, Ragweed and Grass, Oh My!

Anne Ellis hopes that scientists will one day find a cure for allergies. It is the ultimate goal. But unfortunately, for people suffering with red, watery eyes and runny noses, that day is still decades away.

“A cure is not something I am going to announce tomorrow,” says Ellis, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and chair of the Division of Allergy and Immunology.

Research is needed because we are currently in what experts call an “allergy epidemic,” with about 40 percent of Canadians suffering from an allergy. While the data that exist for historical comparisons in Canada are not very reliable, European data show that numbers have increased dramatically since the 1920s and 1930s, when less than one percent of the European population had allergy issues.

There are a lot of factors and theories to explain why things have become so bad. Ellis points to the “hygiene hypothesis.” Compared to a century ago, our society has become very clean and our bodies are no longer exposed to as many infections. Our immune system doesn’t have the same challenges as it used to and as a result, it is more prone to developing hyper-sensitivity, or allergies, to the “harmless” things we are exposed to.

Other factors include declining health and rising obesity levels – people are less active which negatively affects the immune system – and the fact that our industrialized society is creating much more air pollution and toxins than a century ago.

Changes to our food supplies also impact our allergy levels. For example, says Ellis, “In North America, we roast peanuts, a process which makes their proteins more allergenic. In China, they eat peanuts just as often as we do, but they have fewer peanut allergies because they boil peanuts, rendering them less allergenic.”

There is good news for allergy sufferers in Kingston and the surrounding areas – they have access to a top allergy research facility. Ellis is the director of the Environmental Exposure Unit (EEU) based out of Kingston General Hospital. The EEU is an allergen challenge facility that allows researchers to distribute various pollens in the sealed room, precisely controlling the levels that are released, making the large 140-seat chamber an ideal setting to test new allergy medications.

The unit opened in 1981, making Kingston the first city in North America to have a controlled space for testing allergens (Vienna had the world’s first). “Many people view the EEU as the gold standard for controlled, large-scale allergen challenge facilities. There are copycat facilities across North America, but none of them have the ability to put as many people in one room at one time. When you are conducting a clinical trial for an industry sponsor, this leads to quick turnaround times, which is a huge advantage,” says Ellis. “Our participants clearly report that the symptoms they get in the EEU are the same that they get during regular hay fever season.”

Gordon Burns recently took part in a clinical trial in the EEU chamber and discovered the benefits of a good allergy vaccine. People in the study were not told if the injection contained the vaccine, but Gordon suspects he received a placebo during his first visit.

“The first time in the EEU was basically hell. It was pretty bad – I had itchy eyes, was coughing and blowing my nose. I had to breathe for four hours through my mouth, which was not very enjoyable,” said the 65-year-old, long-time allergy sufferer. “The second time, when I think I got the vaccine, I never opened my tissue box and never blew my nose.”

2013 was a particularly bad year for allergy sufferers. The cool spring delayed the release of tree pollen, which normally happens in late-March to early-April in Kingston. Instead, it occurred around the beginning of May – coinciding with the arrival of grass pollen.

“That was a lot of pollen at once and it was tough on people. This might have been the worst year ever,” says Ellis.

Ellis does more than just grass and ragweed pollen allergies. She is involved in a clinical trial with a vaccine for cat allergies. She says that the results have been incredible – after only four injections, the vaccine is still working two years later and people are telling her they can hold a cat without symptoms for the first time.

With all of these clinical trials and her own research, maybe a few decades from now Ellis will be able to announce the cure for allergies. Until then, keep your tissues handy.

Profile: Michael Onesi
(e)Affect Issue 4, Fall 2013