Cancer research takes an unconventional look at allergic reactions
Nikki Comeau - October 31, 2012
Nobody likes an allergic reaction. For some, it’s a minor nuisance. For others, it’s a major health risk.
So, it may come as a surprise to learn that a chemical released in the body during an allergic reaction may play an important role in cancer treatment.
“The chemical called histamine has a profound effect on the immune system,” explains Dr. Jean Marshall, head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie. “Our research will look at the impact histamine may have on the spread of tumours. It’s the first time our lab will be looking at histamine in the context of cancer.”
Mast cells in the body release histamine when they detect a foreign antigen. Dr. Marshall explains that these cells are colloquially known as the “body’s burglar alarm” because of their ability to warn the immune system early in the case of a potential threat. The histamine itself is what causes redness, itchiness and some of the other symptoms of an allergic reaction.
There is literature indicating that individuals with some types of allergies may be more protected from cancer than those without allergies. Dr. Marshall's team of researchers will investigate whether or not higher-levels of histamine released in the body or drugs taken to combat histamine’s actions have anything to do with that.
The potential of unconvential research
Dr. Marshall’s research is a bit unconventional, given that drugs meant to block the effects of histamine are currently widely prescribed to help minimize the side effects of chemotherapy. But that’s exactly why it was recently awarded a grant developed specifically to support unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies that address problems in cancer research.
The Canadian Cancer Society’s brand new Innovation Grant aims to celebrate and encourage innovation in the cancer research field. Dr. Marshall’s research project will receive just over $180,000 in funding as part of the new grant.
“We are delighted that Dr. Marshall’s research project has been chosen for funding,” says Barbara Stead-Coyle, CEO of Canadian Cancer Society, Nova Scotia Division. “Nova Scotia has a tremendously talented research community, important research is happening right here at home.”
“Canadian Cancer Society locally has been very, very supportive. They’ve gone above and beyond in terms of supporting research and trainees here in Nova Scotia,” says Dr. Marshall. “This research is important because ultimately we want to find better ways to prevent and treat cancer.”