Dogs Test Therapy to Scratch Allergy’s Itch

The itchy, watery eyes. The sneezing and scratching. The runny nose and sore throat. Allergies are some of man’s most annoying maladies. But man’s best friend could provide some answers in curing them, says Dr. Thierry Olivry. A professor of immunodermatology in the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), Olivry is working with Japanese researchers on a novel immunotherapy to treat hay fever—and possibly more severe skin allergies.

“If we could impact allergies without side-effects, the potential market would be tremendous.”

Physicians have traditionally used a crude extract of pollen to treat people suffering from hay fever. Injecting patients with small but gradually increasing doses of the extract acts like a vaccination. The immune system comes to recognize the pollen and can eventually defend against it. Scientists with the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology, part of an extensive government research lab in Japan, developed a technique in which a purified pollen extract is enveloped within a lipid droplet along with a lipid immune stimulant. The lipid is designed to activate natural killer T-cells (NKT), regulatory cells in the blood that generate an immune response when activated. “It’s a super-potent, very specific therapy that targets immune cells,” Olivry says. “We hope it will take fewer injections to desensitize someone to the pollen.”

The initial focus for the new therapy is Japanese cedar allergies. The tree’s pollen is as common a cause of hay fever in Japan as ragweed is in the U.S. The RIKEN researchers had tested the therapy in mice, but they were searching for a more complex immune system to test. A chance encounter at a conference two years ago put them in touch with Olivry, who has focused his career on treating allergies in dogs. Dogs are similar to humans, he says, in that they are among the few animal species that spontaneously develop allergies. He is working to desensitize a Maltese-beagle mix that has become allergic to Japanese cedar pollen.

“Dogs are similar to humans in that they are among the few animal species that spontaneously develop allergies.”

If early tests prove promising, Olivry says, he and CVM professors Gregg Dean and Bruce Hammerberg will expand the therapy beyond hay fever. NKT cells are a relatively new discovery, and scientists haven’t yet figured out their specific role. Olivry says the lipid activator might be used without any allergen to generate a non-specific immune response from the cells, effectively altering the entire immune system. “If we could impact allergies without side-effects,” he says, “the potential market would be tremendous.”


Dr. Thierry Olivry, who specializes in treating allergies in dogs, hopes the immunotherapy hes working on with Japanese researchers will benefit humans as well.

Pollen from Japanese cedar trees is as common a cause of hay fever in Japan as ragweed pollen is in the United States.