Dr. Emily McGowan (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) is the recipient of the 2014 FARE Howard Gittis Memorial Research Award. This annual grant helps achieve a key goal of FARE’s strategic plan for research: to attract gifted young investigators to the field of food allergy, develop their careers and expand their interaction and engagement. Since 2008, FARE has funded the award, which honors the memory of Howard Gittis, board member, generous donor, and grandparent of a child with food allergies.Recipients, who include some of the most gifted investigators working in the field today, are selected by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. We spoke to Dr. McGowan about her research goals and the impact of the award on her career.
Would you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to choose a career in food allergy research?
I was exposed to the field of allergy very early in life because, like millions of other Americans, I have a life-long allergy to peanuts and soy. When I was in college, I pursued research in the field of immunology, which I found to be both exciting and rewarding. I turned my attention more specifically to food allergy research during medical school, after I had a near-fatal allergic reaction to peanuts and became acutely aware of the limits of our knowledge of this condition. Since this time, my passion for this field has been kindled by the intellectual stimulation of research and the hope of finding better treatment options for our patients.
What are your specific research interests?
Right now, I am particularly interested in identifying ways in which food allergy may be prevented in future generations. In this regard, we are investigating why so many more children are being diagnosed with food allergy today, and why this condition may be more common in inner city children. As an internist, I am also interested in why some individuals develop food allergies in adulthood. By identifying possible risk factors for developing food allergy, we hope to find targets for future interventions.
What are the goals of your FARE-funded research? What differences could your findings make in the lives of people with food allergies?
In our FARE-funded project, we are examining whether folic acid supplementation, either in utero or in early life, is a risk factor for the development of food allergy. We chose to examine folic acid because food allergies started to become more common in the 1990s, which corresponds to when folic acid was added to grains/cereals and was recommended as a pregnancy supplement to prevent neural tube defects in newborns. From a scientific standpoint, folic acid is also known to change the expression of certain genes, which may contribute to the development of food allergy.
If we see that folic acid is a risk factor for developing food allergies, we could target safe folic acid levels to both prevent neural tube defects (birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord) and minimize the risk of developing food allergy in future generations. It may also be that only certain individuals are at risk for this folic acid effect, in which case we could intervene on only those at increased risk.
On this project, you are working with some of the most respected researchers in the field. How have they influenced your work and goals?
During these projects, I have been fortunate to have the outstanding mentorship of Drs. Robert Wood, Xiaobin Wang, Elizabeth Matsui, and Corinne Keet. Their experience and guidance have taught me how to carefully define my questions, seek out opportunities for collaboration, and always anticipate the unexpected. Most importantly, though, their example of passionate research and compassionate patient care has reinforced my desire to pursue a career in food allergy research.
What role will the Gittis Award play in advancing your career? How else does FARE help further the careers of young researchers?
I am extremely grateful to FARE for supporting my career development and the folic acid project through the Gittis Award. Because of this award, I now can devote my efforts over the next two years to food allergy research and pursuit of a PhD in Clinical Investigation at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. I also now have the resources to conduct the project that I have outlined, which will give us further insight into whether or not folic acid is involved in the development of food allergy. At this early stage in my career, these opportunities are invaluable to my development as a food allergy researcher.
In addition to providing funding opportunities, FARE is a valuable resource for young food allergy researchers. FARE provides a community for food allergy researchers to network and collaborate at local events and national meetings. Furthermore, through its website and online blog, FARE publicizes and disseminates information from food allergy research studies by young investigators. Finally, as a physician, FARE is an exceptional resource to refer our patients to for education and advocacy.