Improved vaccine developed to counter bee-sting allergies

For around three per cent of the Swiss population, an encounter with a bee can be life threatening Keystone Archive

Doctors in Lausanne have conducted successful initial tests on a vaccine that gives hope to the one in 30 people who are allergic to bee stings. It is hoped the new method will be more effective than the treatments already available to sufferers.

This content was published on June 22, 2001 - 14:31

To the vast majority of the public, bee stings are a painful irritant. They may even be beneficial - some studies suggest they can protect against cancer.

But for an estimated three per cent of the Swiss population, an encounter with a bee can be life threatening. Those who have this allergy can suffer blisters over their entire body; a swelling of the tongue, lips and larynx; an inability to breathe, swallow or speak; as well as dizziness, shock and even memory-loss.

A team from the immunology and allergies department of the Canton Vaud University Hospital took 15 volunteers, who had all previously suffered dangerous reactions to bee stings. Over the course of 80 days, they were given a course of six injections with the new vaccine.

They suffered no side effects or allergic reactions, despite the fact that the amount of allergen contained in the vaccine was 20 times the maximum dose used in current de-sensitisation treatment.

The Lausanne team, led by Dr François Spertini, is quick to point out that this is only the first phase, even if it does suggest they have developed the right strategy.

Current methods of dealing with bee-sting allergies consist of the sufferer either having to carry a syringe of adrenaline around at all times, or de-sensitising their body with a lengthy series of injections containing increasing quantities of venom.

There is a risk in the initial stages of triggering an allergic reaction, but after between three and five years of treatment, 80 per cent of patients are protected.

The vaccine being developed in Lausanne directly targets the immune system. Scientists at the University of Lausanne's Biochemistry Institute have developed long synthetic peptides that mimic one of the main allergens in bee stings. So far, they have not shown any of their unpleasant side effects.

The vaccine has succeeded in achieving the main goal of the exercise - paralysing the T-lymphocytes, also known as T-cells, which play a crucial role in regulating the way the immune system responds to intrusions. In some people, one variety of T-lymphocytes suppresses the immune response and allows the allergy to enter and move around the body.

There is still a long way to go before the vaccine becomes available to the wider public. Further clinical trials will be needed, perhaps after other allergens have been incorporated into the vaccine.

It's also not clear whether the Lausanne research will help our knowledge of other allergies, such as to cat fur, dust mites or pollen.

by Roy Probert

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