Dr. Jessica O’Konek (University of Michigan) is one of the scientists presenting at FARE’s 2017 Research Retreat this weekend in Tysons Corner, VA. Dr. O’Konek received a FARE Investigator in Food Allergy Award in 2015 for her work as a new food allergy researcher. She is developing a nasal spray vaccine containing food allergens and nano-emulsion, tiny droplets of oil suspended in water. Studies in mice suggest that these droplets, which are 250 times smaller than the width of a human hair, may change how the immune system reacts to allergens in ways that favor a non-allergic response. FARE interviewed Dr. O’Konek in Fall 2016 for our Research Advocate newsletter.
What first attracted you to food allergy research?
My 5-year-old daughter has a friend with severe food allergies. It broke my heart to see him eat at a table all alone, and I could not imagine the anxiety his parents must have. On holidays when the children passed out treats, my daughter always made sure she brought something that wasn’t food so that her friend would not feel left out.
This was my first real experience with food allergies, and it showed me how much food allergies are changing our children’s lives. I tried to be an advocate for food allergy families at our school.
I had studied vaccines for a number of years. Looking over some data, I thought we might be able to use our vaccine to change food allergy immune responses. It was great to apply my work to something I cared deeply about as a parent.
What has sustained your interest?
I get really excited when an experiment supports my hypothesis or produces interesting data, and I’m always pushing forward to get that feeling again.
Additionally, participating in events such as the FARE Walk is very inspiring, as I get to see firsthand the people I’m hoping my research will eventually impact.
What finding has surprised you most?
This is a great time to be doing food allergy research. Some of the therapies in clinical trials show such promise, and the field is moving so fast. I have been most surprised to see how quickly some studies have led to complete paradigm shifts in thinking about food allergies, specifically the LEAP study, which demonstrated that early introduction of allergenic foods can prevent food allergies.
How might your research supported by FARE affect patient care in the future?
While one of the main focuses of my research is developing a therapy for food allergies, we are learning a lot about the pathogenesis of food allergies in the process. The more we know about the immunology of food allergies, the more targets we can discover for the development of new therapies. I hope that something comes out of my research that will lead to a new therapy in the clinic to treat patients with food allergies.
What food allergy question would you most like to see answered?
It fascinates me that there has been such a huge increase in the number of kids with food allergies in one generation. What has happened in two decades to cause such a dramatic increase in the incidence of food allergies? While there are some theories, this really is a big black box.