Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center Identified as an Elite Research Center

By Lynn McCain | April 11

Drs. Nicholas Lukacs and James R. Baker Jr.  Credit: University of Michigan PhotographyAn interdisciplinary team of researchers from across Michigan Medicine are focused on cutting-edge research to understand and address food allergies as members of the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center. Nicholas Lukacs, PhD, the Godfrey Dorr Stobbe Professor of Pathology and Scientific Director of the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center, and James R. Baker Jr., Ruth Dow Doan Professor of Biologic Nanotechnology and Director of the MHWFAC, were instrumental in founding the food allergy center in 2015 and in recruiting an exceptional team of researchers to the Center. One of their goals since the inception of the MHWFAC was to see it become recognized as one of the world’s elite research centers in its field. Recently, this goal was achieved when the National Institutes of Health awarded them one of just 10 seven-year CoFAR Cooperative Agreement Grants, recognizing the Center’s exceptional ground-breaking research.

The MHWFAC released the following announcement of this award:

MHWFAC receives elite CoFAR grant from NIH

The Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center has been awarded a seven-year CoFAR Cooperative Agreement Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to become one of its 10 centers of food allergy research in the United States.

The NIH”s Consortium on Food Allergy Research (CoFAR) was established by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to support clinical research into food allergy.  It is the leading group of food allergy research centers in the world.

The CoFAR award has been a goal for MHWFAC since its inception, and positions it in the elite tier of food allergy research centers globally. The MHWFAC was founded in 2015 to conduct comprehensive research into the mechanisms and treatment of food allergy. Its faculty are globally recognized scientists whose basic and clinical research programs are investigating facets of food allergy ranging from genetic origins to potential vaccines.

“This award identifies the University of Michigan and the MHWFAC as one of the sites where groundbreaking NIH-funded food allergy research is taking place,” said James R. Baker Jr., MD, director of the MHWFAC.  In addition to the significant financial award, “being identified as a CoFAR member likely will help us attract additional funding and projects from other governmental agencies, foundations and private corporations.”

 In the funded proposal, reviewed at a hearing with NIAID leaders in Washington, DC, Dr. Baker outlined overall facilities and infrastructure associated with the MHWFAC. The proposal also reported the extensive history of food allergy research at the MHWFAC.

In addition, two specific research projects were identified as those that the CoFAR award will support. One is based on a new approach to the clinical diagnosis of food allergy, while the other will analyze statistical data from tens of thousands of patients.

 MHWFAC Interdisciplinary team of researchersChase Schuler, MD, will serve as a principal investigator in the CoFAR agreement, directing the clinical study components, sample collection, data analysis and interpretation of the results.

 Dr. Schuler has been leading an innovative study that can predict an anaphylactic reaction as much as 45 minutes in advance, by the amount of water a patient loses via their skin after ingesting a potential allergen. The technique, which uses a special meter that rests on the forearm to measure moisture, can improve the safety of clinical food challenges, and help scientists better understand food-related anaphylaxis.

 “There is a huge need to make food challenges safer,” said Dr. Schuler. As investigators discover more via this line of research, “we possibly could stop reactions before they are severe or obvious. This would make food challenges safer, yet still accurate, in telling you whether you are allergic or not.”

 Another MHWFAC team is analyzing the link between food allergy and atopic dermatitis, a skin disorder also known as eczema. In many patients, childhood eczema is a precursor to food allergy, and scientists are working to determine why.

The upcoming study will look at the genomes of thousands of individuals, using existing databases as well as new samples from patients with both disorders, to look for the genetic signatures that underlie both diseases.

 “Our understanding of the shared genetic underpinnings of atopic dermatitis and food allergy remains limited,” said Dr. Baker.  “Additionally, to date, research has identified few ‘risk genes’ for food allergy.  We hope that by studying the substantial overlap of food allergy and eczema, we can better identify those who may be genetically pre-disposed to the disease.

Johann Gudjonsson, MD, PhD, an internationally recognized clinical geneticist and another principal investigator in the CoFAR project, said the aim is to decipher the genetics of food allergy and atopic dermatitis at the single-cell level.

“This will allow us to unravel the development of the diseases and the relationship between these conditions at a level that has not been previously achievable,” Dr. Gudjonsson said.

MHWFAC Scientific Director Nicholas Lukacs, PhD, will collaborate on the studies, along with other Michigan Medicine physician-researchers, scientists, nurses, data analysts and a bioinformaticist.

 “These projects are emblematic of the interdisciplinary approach that we feel most likely to advance discovery in the arena of food allergy,” said Dr. Baker.  “By harnessing the talent of our renowned basic scientists and the insights and ideas of our clinician-investigators, we feel these CoFAR-supported projects will accelerate our understanding of food allergy and provide new options for patients and their families.”