New tablet could treat grass pollen allergies, not just symptoms
Published Monday, May 20, 2013 9:24PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, May 20, 2013 11:40PM EDT
Itchy nose, watery eyes: allergy sufferers know the symptoms all too well.
But a new kind of allergy pill could do more than just mask the unpleasant symptoms of grass pollen allergies -- it could help treat the actual allergy.
A new generation of allergy medications, are beginning to hit the market in Canada - tablets that slowly teach the immune system to tolerate the substances that induce allergies. It's a pill form of the standard injection immunotherapy, used for decades.
“It is quite new and, in my opinion, quite revolutionary,” Hamilton Health Sciences allergy specialist Dr. Susan Waserman told CTV News.
The standard treatment for allergies, aside from drugs like antihistamines to treat the symptoms, are immunotherapy treatments by injection. Patients visit the doctor every two weeks for over a year, to get a series of needles. The injections contain tiny amounts of ragweed or grass pollens, or other allergens.
The therapy exposes the immune system to higher and higher doses, training it not to over-react when exposed to the substance.
Terry Young, a long time allergy sufferer in Ottawa has just completed 13 months of injections and is crossing his fingers that they will keep him from the annual misery he encounters every ragweed season. But the injections are time consuming
"You have to stay there (in the doctor’s office) for 20 minutes after the shot to ensure that everything is okay,” he said.
Pill-based immunotherapy has become very popular in Europe. Health Canada recently approved the first product in Canada, called Oralair, designed for those with allergies to five different grass pollens.
"Many people do not have time to come to clinic on a weekly or monthly basis. Most people don’t like needles,” Waserman said. "For many people it will open the door to treatment."
The pills are designed to be a more convenient and less painful option than weekly or monthly allergy shots.
They contain small amounts of allergens and are dissolved under the tongue. Medications are tested to make sure they affect the immune system, but don't cause a severe allergic reaction. Over time, the doses build up to develop tolerance in the patient.
Patients start taking the pills about four months before the start of pollen season, usually in January, and continue daily treatment throughout pollen season, usually July.
Dr. Waserman recently started to prescribe Oralair and says it appears to be safe and there are few complaints, but she is still awaiting full reports from her patients.
"It offers a lot of flexibility for patients -- it’s a home-based therapy.”
Some studies also suggest allergy patients may be able to stop taking the tablets after three years, when the immune system has been "taught" to react normally to the allergens. More research on this is underway.
“It may change your system,” Dr. Waserman said. “Reprogram your immune system so you can stop taking immunotherapy and yet still have relief when symptoms come.”
Another pill treatment for ragweed allergies is being studied on more than 700 patients in Canada, the U.S and Europe, with promising early results released recently.
“It was well-tolerated, and there were no severe reactions,” said Dr. Peter Creticos, one of the investigators from Johns Hopkins medical Centre, in Baltimore Maryland.
"The study showed a clinically meaningful benefit -- a 24 per cent to 27 per cent improvement in clinical symptoms over placebo,” Dr. Creticos said in a phone interview with CTV News.
Dr. Creticos is also a paid consultant for Merck, the makers of the ragweed immunotherapy.
And scientists are also designing pill immune therapy for house dust allergies and cat dander allergies
Terry Young meanwhile is waiting to see if his year of injections will keep his ragweed allergies at bay, when summer comes.
But he says he would consider switching to the pills as an easier way to get some relief from allergy season
"It would make (treatment) much more accessible for many more people," he added.