When I was little, I accidentally stepped on a bee hidden in some grass. My foot and leg immediately began to swell and my day out with a friend ended up in a rush to the emergency room. I was found to have a severe allergy to bee stings and was prescribed an Epipen, which I kept up to date until into my late teens. I have no idea if I'm still allergic, as I haven't been stung in at least 15 years, but it's always something I keep in the back of my mind as one of those things I should probably get checked out. Oh, and I should probably get another Epipen, just to be safe. It became one of those things I'd "get around to" doing, but never did.
Lately this nonsense with price gouging made me wonder if there were alternatives. What if we could somehow cut out the middleman of pharmaceutical companies and instead look to something else for a solution? What about all of that crazy stem cell technology that's happening now, could that be the way out of this mess?
It was a crazy idea, but I reached out to Ajan Reginald, a former dentist-turned-life-science-entrepreneur and founder of Celixir, which focuses on stem cell technology, about my hypothesis and hope for a solution to removing the worry of price increases on life-saving medicines.
What's an "explain like I'm 5" way of looking at allergies?
AR: "The body's defence system is the immune system which is made of immune cells. The immune system recognises safe substances and dangerous foreign objects.
If something is recognised as dangerous the immune system tries to destroy this substance to protect the body. The immune cells release chemicals to try to destroy the dangerous substance but these are potent chemicals that can damage the body as well.
An allergic response is when a safe substance (e.g., peanut) is wrongly recognised as dangerous by the immune system. This can produce the most severe and dangerous allergic response - anaphylaxis, when the body can go into shock; blood pressure drops suddenly and airways narrow, blocking normal breathing."
Is there a way stem cells can lessen the severity, or completely remove, allergies?
AR: "Yes cellular therapies (not necessarily stem cells) can reduce the response of the immune cells to allergies. Though vaccines may be a better way to treat allergies."
How long do you anticipate we'll need to keep relying on things like EpiPens instead of combating the problem with science and stem cells?
AR: "Broadly applicable vaccines for Peanuts and other common allergies are still in clinical trials so may be available in 5-10 years from market. However these won't replace EpiPens completely and emergencies you'll still need these products. Easy to use competitors to EpiPen are expected in 2018."
So, as with all things that are worth waiting for, getting away from the potential of having to make life-threatening decisions in regards to "money or medicine?" will take some time, but is still on the horizon so don't feel hopeless just yet. The more we find out about stem cells and how they can correct our immune system triggers, the sooner we'll be able to move away from a world where lifesaving medicines are a privilege and not a right.