Childhood and adult food allergies have grown significantly over the last 20 years — more than 8 percent of children and 10 percent of adults now report having a food allergy. Asthma also presents a formidable burden as the leading pediatric illness in the United States, with rates significantly higher in Chicago than the national average.
Scientists from Northwestern and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago have been at the forefront of research, care and advocacy to improve these childhood and adult allergic diseases for years. Now, Northwestern has established the new Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research, which will provide both investigators and patients more support while uncovering new discoveries from applied and basic science research.
Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, professor of Pediatrics and Medicine in the Division of Academic General Pediatrics and Primary Care and the Division of Allergy and Immunology, will direct the new center, which is part of Northwestern’s Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM) and Lurie Children’s Hospital.
“We really needed a center in the Midwest that specializes in these conditions,” Gupta said. “We want to not only reduce the daily burden of these diseases but also develop interventions and help inform policy at all levels.”
Gupta and her collaborators from Northwestern and Lurie Children’s are known nationally for research in allergy and asthma. Her team has collected data from over 40,000 adults and 40,000 children to better understand just how widespread food allergies are, and their results are widely cited describing prevalence numbers in the United States. Her team has also received federally funded grants from the National Institutes of Health to study both racial disparities among children with food allergies as well as to improve adherence to clinical guidelines to prevent the development of peanut allergy.
While leading the center, Gupta looks forward to partnering with other faculty in the Midwest who are hard at work developing and testing new treatments for food allergies and asthma, with the potential of helping children and adults worldwide.
The Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research (CFAAR) will continue this work and focus on three areas:
- Data: Collecting, analyzing and maintaining large data sets to better understand the health impact of these diseases over time.
- Clinical research: finding ways to improve care for patients and testing interventions.
- Policy: helping provide resources and data to inform policies around allergies and asthma, from local school emergency medication policies to national FDA allergen labeling laws.
“Our center is unique as it focuses on determining the public health impact and building large databases to understand everything from predictors to developing the condition to predictors for responding to treatments,” Gupta said. “We can also follow trends in managing the conditions and issues and barriers so we can better advocate for interventions and policy changes. With so many people having or knowing someone with allergies and/or asthma, together, we can make a large positive impact.”
Gupta has previously worked with Chicago Public Schools to develop policies around access to epinephrine injectors and inhalers, but there is more work to be done. Her epidemiological research has shown that sesame allergy is more prevalent than previously thought. Right now, U.S. law requires that food packaging lists whether it contains eight allergens, but sesame is not one of them.
“By having these data that shows this prevalence, we can show policymakers the extent of the issues, and present the data needed to add sesame to the labeling law,” Gupta said.
The center also plans to train the next generation of food allergy investigators. It holds a summer program each year for high school, undergraduate, graduate and medical students to conduct research and assist with projects and studies.
That sort of training will be important as the center grows and develops, said Ron Ackermann, MD, MPH, director of IPHAM and senior associate dean for public health.
“This is a very strong research program that we knew could grow quickly and we wanted it to have the resources it needed to be successful,” he said. “Ruchi is tireless in her goal to eliminate negative health outcomes and inequities that relate to food allergy and asthma and she is a passionate leader with a strong vision who wants to collaborate and mentor others in this area. It’s exciting to get behind an initiative like this and I’m looking forward to seeing all that this center will accomplish.”
To learn more about CFAAR, visit cfaar.northwestern.edu or email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.