Food allergy is one of the most common health problems that children face in Hong Kong. A local academic research¹ found that among 7,393 children who were aged 14 or below in Hong Kong, 352 reported or were diagnosed with food allergy. While among the leading causes of food allergic reaction, shellfish was the most prevalent (shellfish: 37.8%, egg: 14.5%, milk: 10.8%, peanuts: 8.5%). According to a study², the incidence rates in developed coastal cities in Asia like Hong Kong and Taiwan, were relatively higher than those in Europe and the Americas.
Swelling of lips and eyes, and skin rash are some of the common shellfish allergic reactions. In serious cases, life-threatening anaphylactic reactions such as a drop in blood pressure and difficulty in breathing might occur. However, unlike other common food allergens such as peanuts and eggs, there is no effective immunotherapy for shellfish allergy. Once serious allergic reactions occur, patients can only manage the condition by using epinephrine injectors and avoiding the allergen, but these methods are palliative. At the same time, conventional immunotherapy requires increase in the patient's dose of allergens gradually to be desensitised or acquire tolerance, as such taking sufficiently long duration for the treatment, and it is also possible to cause allergic side effects on the patients during the treatment.
Dr. Christine Wai and her team from the Faculty of Medicine of The Chinese University of Hong Kong have been studying the causes and responses of shellfish allergy since 2011. They attempted to construct hypoallergen-encoding DNA vaccines and inject them directly into the body to induce immunity, which helps reduce the allergic reactions to shellfish from the source by acquiring tolerance. The vaccines have already been proven successful on mice. With the support of AXA Research Fund, Dr. Wai is now working with the hospital to collect blood samples from shellfish allergic subjects to study the feasibility of applying the vaccine to humans.
Dr. Wai stated, “Shellfish allergy is a common and long-term life-threatening disease, but there is no corresponding clinical treatment at the moment. The hypoallergen DNA vaccine-based immunotherapy is in the hope of offering both therapeutic and preventive effects on all shellfish-allergic subjects, including children and adults. We hope that the vaccine can help shellfish-allergic subjects to relieve or even cure for all intolerances.”
AXA Research Fund is the scientific philanthropy initiative of AXA Group, a global leading insurance company. The Fund is dedicated to support scientific researches related to the in-depth understanding and prevention of various risks that pose threats to the environment, human health and society. Dr. Christine Wai from the Faculty of Medicine of The Chinese University of Hong Kong was the only researcher in Hong Kong granted by AXA Research Fund in 2017, receiving approximately HKD 1.24 million, to fund the research for the world's first shellfish sensitive DNA vaccine.
Ms. Andrea Wong, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer of AXA Hong Kong, said, “We deeply appreciate the persistence and effort made by Dr. Wai and her team, and are very proud that local universities and researchers can initiate the world's first-of-its-kind research project, benefiting the human health globally. We believe that the research findings will help shellfish-allergic patient to alleviate or recover from the allergy. AXA Hong Kong is committed to protecting and caring for the local community.We will continue to play an active role in contributing our parts in the areas of health, youth education and social services.”
AXA Research Fund has provided approximately HKD 1.7 billion in funding 563 research projects conducted by researchers from 35 countries and 58 nationalities in the world since 2007. In Hong Kong, more than HKD 20 million have been committed to support 8 local researchers.
1. Source: Prevalence of self-reported food allergy in Hong Kong children and teens –a population survey (2012)
2. Source: Parent-reported adverse food reactions in Hong Kong Chinese pre-schoolers: epidemiology, clinical spectrum and risk factors (2009)