Shetland ponies may hold the cure to allergies

Brett Smith for – @ParkstBrett

Allergy season is upon us and those sniffles and runny nose that come with it are caused by the body’s immune system erroneously reacting to pollen as if it was invading microbes.

A new study could provide valuable insight into allergies as researchers from University of Edinburgh have found that the immune system of Shetland ponies can actually prevent an allergic reaction from happening.

It had been previously thought that Shetland ponies are not allergic to bites from tiny flies known as midges because no observable reaction could be seen in some ponies.

Two reactions

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the new study described how after a midge bites a Shetland pony, the equine’s immune system can react one of two ways. It can produce allergy symptoms like inflammation and itching or it can release factors that shut down the allergic response before it happens.

Upon further inspection, the study team saw that ponies allergic to midge bites release a signaling protein known as IL-4 that goes on to stimulate an immune response. Meanwhile, ponies not allergies to the bites release a similar factor called ‘IFNγ,’ which impedes various immune cells that would otherwise set off allergic reactions.

“To our knowledge, this is the very first study of a natural allergic disease in which we can show that immune responses to allergens can take two directions, either leading to allergy or to tolerance,” said study author Dietmar Zaiss, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences. “We believe this finding could have direct practical implications, for example by helping immune responses to choose the ‘right’ direction in individuals who we would like to protect from developing occupation-associated allergies.”

The study team noted that it remains unclear as to why some people develop sensitivities to certain substances, while others do not. Scientists still do not know why the immune system is activated to produce a protective response over an allergic one.

Probiotics may also help

A different study published in February found that probiotics are promising candidates to treat peanut allergies in children.

The study involved two groups of children. One group was given a dose of probiotics and peanut protein in increasing amounts over 18 months. The other group received a placebo.

About 80 percent of the children taking the probiotic treatment were able to consume around 0.1 ounces of peanut protein without a reaction. Only about four percent of children in the placebo group were able to consume peanuts without a reaction.

The researchers of that study called it a “first step” toward a possible treatment.


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