SFU researcher develops allergy-fighting database

Getting a household pet might reduce your chance of developing allergies.
Getting a household pet might reduce your chance of developing allergies.

While you may be stuck with that annoying cat allergy for some time longer, the face of allergy research is about to change in a big way.

The Allergy and Asthma Portal (AAP), an online database and search engine developed by SFU’s own professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, Fiona Brinkman, will help uncover key risk factors in the development of asthma and allergies.

The AAP acts as a catalog for some of the information already known about the human body at the genetic and protein levels. As researchers add more information to it, they will be able to look for trends that might otherwise be invisible on a small scale.

With time, this means that the database will become more and more useful, allowing researchers to overlay their own findings in order to understand the big picture of what’s going on in the human body.

Similar resources exist for other diseases, such as cancer, but allergy and asthma are relative newcomers to the ‘big data’ scene. The AAP’s direct predecessor, InnateDB, was a resource used to help research the immune system.

“It’s essentially a natural progression for us to extend this to allergy and asthma, and we’re quite enthusiastic because it’s only the start,” Brinkman told The Peak.

The human immune system is made of dozens of cell types which sometimes overreact to something otherwise harmless, causing allergy or asthma. The AAP already contains over 4,500 of those cellular interactions, and over 3,000 genes that are implicated. These interactions could be used as specific targets for therapies that could prevent, or even reverse allergy.

Brinkman went on to say that “what we’ve found is by looking at complex diseases as more of a network [. . .] things become a little more simple.”

 “One of the most protective things you can do to avoid developing allergies is to basically get a dog.”

Fiona Brinkman, SFU professor of MBB

However, Brinkman explained that another part of the picture is getting attention from the scientific community: “There’s a lot of information coming out showing the role of microbes in development of allergy and asthma and the importance of exposure, appropriately, to microbes as an infant.”

The principle, sometimes referred to as the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’ suggests that an environment that is too clean may actually cause disease in the form of allergy. In more economically developed countries, like Canada, allergy rates are significantly higher than in less economically developed countries, and this may have something to do with insufficient exposure to microbes in the environment.

However, according to a recent study of certain households, pets may be of significant help. “One of the most protective things you can do to avoid developing allergies is to basically get a dog,” Brinkman said, explaining the theory that a dog brings microbes from outside into contact with its owners, though there may be other factors involved.

While the AAP is set to integrate data on a vast scale, Brinkman stressed the importance of organizing data to make it legible and useful.

“One of the biggest challenges we have in biology is it’s becoming more of an information science, and we need to get that data properly organized and we need to get it more integrated,” Brinkman said. “We really want to find discoveries more efficiently.”