Australian environment changing genetics of allergy sufferers, research suggests

The Australian environment may be causing genetic changes and making people more susceptible to allergies such as hayfever, new research has found.

In Western Australia, Curtin University’s Brad Zhang has been looking at why Australians have one of the highest rates of allergies and hayfever in the world.

New studies, presented last week at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, reveal that something in the Australian environment is changing the way people’s bodies work, making them more likely to reach for the tissue box come spring.

Mr Zhang tested the incidence of hayfever in a group of newly-arrived Chinese immigrants and in a group of immigrants who had lived in Australia for more than two years.

He found changes known as “methylation” in the genetic structure of the group living in Australia long-term.

“We know in the past 50 years, the prominence of asthma allergies have gone up significantly in Western countries,” he said.

“We have done a lot of research but we still don’t know a cause why the asthma allergy is so high in developed countries.”

Part of Mr Zhang’s work is trying to work out what it is in the Western environment which is causing the increase in allergies.

He said one popular theory was that the levels of bacteria in food and water in developed countries were lower.

If people are not exposed to bacteria concentrations, it may affect their susceptibility to allergies later in life.

But he said more work needed to be done.

“Currently we don’t have … very solid evidence here,” he said.

“Which genes, which genetic marker plays the major role.

“It’s a very very tough question, because when you test the million, million markers in a very small population, we need to consider multiple comparison issues.

“Currently for us, we [have] only confirmed some global, overall trend there.”

According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, almost 20 per cent of the population has an allergic disease, and the rate is increasing.

Hospital admissions for severe, life-threatening allergic reactions have increased four-fold in the past 10 years.

Epigenetic studies, or the study of external factors on gene expression, may now open the door to finding ways to treat and potentially eradicate hayfever and allergies.5027922-3x2-940x627

The research was also supported by the University of Western Australia.


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