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Insect venom therapy research

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Insect venom therapy research

12 January 2017

In Australia, venoms from stinging insects are one of the most common causes of severe allergic reactions, causing more deaths than shark attacks.

A $10,000 grant has recently been awarded to an SA Pathology research project by the Allergy and Immunology Foundation of Australasia (AIFA). The research team, led by Dr Pravin Hissaria, with Chief Pathologist Prof Bob Heddle and Dr Adriana (Thanh-Thai) Le, will assess effective treatments for allergic reactions to hopper ant stings.

Unique to our region

Allergic reactions to these insects is a uniquely Australian problem. Hopper ants (also known as ‘Jack Jumper’ ants) are very aggressive and allergy to their venom is one of the most common causes of sting anaphylaxis in southern and eastern Australia. Around 3% of the population in this region has experienced immediate, generalised allergic reactions to their stings and about half of these were potentially life-threatening. Symptoms include all-over rashes, swelling of the tongue or throat, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and vomiting, trouble breathing or a drop in blood pressure. Those most at risk are the elderly or people with severe breathing difficulties.

Immunotherapy

The purpose of this study is to assess the usefulness of a blood assay called the ‘Basophil Activation Test’ as a tool to predict effectiveness, ongoing protection and treatment-related side effects in patients receiving hopper ant venom immunotherapy. This involves giving gradually increasing doses of ant venom in a vaccine, which aims to reduce the chances of a severe allergic reaction to any future sting.

Other allergies

There is currently no reliable test to judge whether this treatment has worked apart from a ‘live sting challenge’, with all the inherent dangers this entails. The study also has potential benefits for other allergies. Establishing the effectiveness of this test for allergen tolerance could allow it to be used for food and drug allergies, reducing the need for potentially dangerous allergen challenges which can only be undertaken in specialised centres.