Immune cells in the skin play a surprising role in allergies

Tuesday, 07 December, 2021

Immune cells in the skin play a surprising role in allergies

A new discovery led by New Zealand’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research has shone a light on immune cells in the skin, suggesting they play a much larger role in the onset of allergies than first thought.

The research found that dendritic cells in the skin behave differently from their counterparts elsewhere in the body. This finding, published in the journal Nature Immunology, throws into question the long-held belief that immune cells behave in the same way regardless of where they are in the body, which has far-reaching implications for allergic and inflammatory conditions.

“Historically, we’ve assumed that a dendritic cell in the skin is virtually identical in form and function as a dendritic cell in the lung,” said Professor Franca Ronchese, whose team led the new research. “We’re only just realising that’s not the case, so in many ways we’re playing catch-up in terms of our understanding and implications in disease.”

Dendritic cells act as ‘lookouts’ and play an important role in initiating and coordinating immune responses. Dendritic cells that live in the skin behave differently to dendritic cells anywhere else in the body, and what sets them apart might just be what’s driving the formation of allergies — with the skin effectively ‘ground zero’ for the development of allergic conditions.

“This is the most important immunological discovery to come out of New Zealand in the past 20 years,” said Malaghan Institute Director Professor Graham Le Gros. “It marks a milestone in fundamental immunology which will have far-reaching impacts in the design and development of immunotherapies that target allergic and inflammatory conditions.”

Advancements in technology have played a key role in this shift, with recent improvements in analytical techniques enabling scientists to determine the subtle but significant differences that exist between cells of the same type — and for the development of allergies, these slight differences might make all the difference.

Same cells, different signals

Immune cells rely on unique chemical signals to inform them about whether and how to react to potential threats in the body. One of these signals is called IL-13, a molecule that is made when immune cells detect cellular damage caused by allergens or parasite infections.

The release of IL-13 acts as a switch, alerting the immune system to the existence of a threat, which results in a cascade of responses that recruit immune cells to the site of infection so the invading organisms can be destroyed before they cause further damage. This is known as the inflammatory response.

Until now, immunologists have assumed that IL-13 was only expressed when absolutely necessary, as too much inflammation can be just as harmful as too little. However, a few years ago Prof Ronchese and her team observed something strange: there seemed to be a constant presence of IL-13 in the skin but not anywhere else in the body. It took several years of research to determine that this wasn’t some random observation, but a feature unique to immune cells in the skin — one with pressing implications in understanding why the skin is often implicated in the development of allergic conditions.

The war in the skin

The skin is unlike any other organ in your body, as it has to contend with the never-ending assault of undesirable and sometimes dangerous organisms your body routinely comes into contact with every minute of every day. The skin therefore doesn’t always have the luxury of time to leisurely decide which incoming particles are safe and which ones might make you sick, so it is more likely to trigger an immune response to something harmless rather than be caught out letting a deadly virus in.

This ‘priming’ of the immune response may be why IL-13 is needed at low but persistent level in the skin, Prof Ronchese suggested. Additionally, these findings suggest that the immune cells in the skin, particularly dendritic cells, have uniquely adapted to the presence of IL-13 compared to elsewhere in the body.

The downside to this interplay may mean that the skin is in a constant tug of war between setting off immune responses versus not. For most people, this balance is maintained without difficulty. For others, it may be what tips them towards allergic disease. This is what Prof Ronchese wants to get to the bottom of.

“It’s clear that there is something going on in the immune cells in the skin that is unlike anywhere else in the body,” she said. “While we have a lot of work to do to pinpoint exactly what is happening, we know that immune cells in the skin are much more likely to initiate allergic responses, and we believe that IL-13 is an important factor in this.”

Why the skin matters

Allergy triggers can be wide-ranging — from pollen to peanuts — and when this triggering becomes chronic, you get allergic disease. Prof Ronchese and Dr Maia Brewerton, a clinical immunology consultant and collaborator on the Malaghan Institute’s allergic disease program, believe the skin is the common factor linking all these allergies.

As many people living with allergic conditions will attest, most don’t suffer from an allergy to just one thing; rather, allergies tend to accumulate and change over a lifetime. So while eczema might not seem as dangerous as a life-threatening peanut allergy, sensitisation in the skin is often the tip of the iceberg — the opening of the flood gates for the development of other serious allergic conditions later in life such as food allergy or asthma.

This trend is known as the ‘allergic march’, and for most people it starts in the skin at an early age. There’s not a lot yet known about why the allergic march exists in the first place, or what can be done to stop it. Generally, scientists agree that the earlier you can prevent the allergies from appearing, the less of a negative effect it will have long term.

Both the allergic march and the discovery of IL-13 in the skin indicate just how important the skin is in determining whether or not a person will go on to develop a lifelong battle with allergic conditions.

We are what we eat

Our immune system isn’t born inherently knowing what is and isn’t good for you. Some things your body learns while in the womb and while breastfeeding. The rest, your immune system has to learn on its own — one encounter at a time — and how you encounter something for the first time might make all the difference when it comes to developing or preventing allergies.

Take the food we eat, for example. Your gut, and the immune cells in the gut, has evolved to deal with all sorts of foods coming and going. It knows what ‘food’ looks like, so knows it’s not a threat. But what if instead of encountering a food through the gut, the skin is what makes first contact? The immune cells that live there might not get it right.

“What we put on our skin is crucial,” Dr Brewerton said. “There is increasing evidence that early life exposure of food through the skin may cause food allergy in susceptible individuals and delaying the introduction of high-risk foods like egg and peanut butter in the infant diet increases the chance of developing a food allergy.”

Indeed, allergists often see patients with severe allergies to food found in things like skin creams and soaps, leading Dr Brewerton to suggest, “I think it’s really important we consider what we’re putting on our skin, particularly when we’re very young or our skin barrier is damaged.”

With the new paper showing how immune cells in the skin are dancing on a hair-trigger, Prof Ronchese and Dr Brewerton both recommend that parents make sure their children aren’t unnecessarily excluding important items from their environment or their diet, and think twice about the products they put on their child’s skin.

“Your body can’t learn what is good for it if it’s never encountered it, and perhaps we need to consider the manner in which we introduce these materials to the body,” Prof Ronchese concluded.

Image credit: ©

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