Can Scientists Become Allergic To Their Own Research?

by Kareena Dodeja
Can Scientists Become Allergic To Their Own Research?

February 27, 2021

Have you wondered if scientists could be allergic to their subjects? What if a Nobel Laureate is sneezing at his own work? It sounds absurd, right? Here are a few incidents when research led to severe allergies

Bryan Fry, a famous biologist, could feel his heart pounding faster when Death Adder snake bit his hand. One bite from the neurotoxin-laced snake would lead to vomiting, paralysis, and yes, death. Fry kept many snakes, so he wasn’t worried and went to the hospital to get the anti-venom. However, he was so deathly allergic to snake venom that his body went into Anaphylactic shock.

Some cases might not be this extreme, but experts suggest that it is not rare that scientists could develop allergies from organisms they study. Allergy researchers claim that scientist’s passion for the subject for years could put them at high risk. 

scool buzz Can researchers become allergic to their research
Researchers can also become allergic to their research Courtesy: Washington University In St. Louis

How do Allergies develop in our body?

The allergies develop because our immune system reacts to a harmless substance. It monitors the body for dangerous bacteria, fungi, or viruses, but it sometimes identifies with some pollen animal danger as dangerous. It becomes sensitised to it and produces antibodies to avoid it. If a person is in constant contact with the substance, the antibodies flag it as an intruder, and in defence, it releases compounds like histamine that irritate and inflame the tissues around it. This leads to allergy symptoms. 

A researcher at Tulane University, John Carlson, who studies insect and dust mite allergies, believes that some things could cause allergies, but it depends on the frequency of interaction with the organism. He claims that there is a 30% chance of developing an allergy with whatever we study. Data might be limited, but studies do suggest that occupational allergies occur as much as 44% when people work with lab rodents, 40% of veterinarians also included, and 25-60% of people who work with insects.

Doctoral student Danielle de Carle used to collect and feed leeches with her own blood—until she became allergic. She now uses sausage casings filled with pig blood to nourish them. Courtesy: Danielle de Carle

Danielle De Carle – Allergic to leeches

Danielle De Carle, a doctorate student in Toronto, goes out looking for leeches when most people avoid them. De Carle wanted to figure out how the different species would be related to each other and how would blood-feeding be involved. She caught them using her body as bait.

She said that leech bites were painless, and to keep them alive, she used to let them feed on her. The gloomy part is when she noticed that the bites were getting itchy, and regular contact with them was getting troublesome. She swelled up whenever she was hunting for leeches, and she quickly realised the allergic reaction. She fed them pig’s blood instead of letting them feed on her.

gg films palau nia tagging coral 2017pa290111 web
Biologist Nia Walker attaches an ID tag to the base of a tabletop coral on the northern fore reef in Palau. Courtesy: GG Films

Nia Walker – Allergic to Corals

In another incident, Nia Walker, a PhD student in Biology from Standford University, realised she had an allergic response to corals she was working on. She noticed rashes when she was doing her field-work on corals in Palau. It kept getting extreme and developed a severe sensitivity. She started using protective equipment so she could keep working on her research.

John Giddens – Allergic to a tree

John Giddens, a doctorate student in Plant biology, said he did not have any allergies before he did any lab work. He started studying the Eastern redcedar, an evergreen tree, and since, then he has nasal allergy symptoms, and he believes it’s from the redcedar pollen.

scool buzz Entomologist Chip Taylor is allergic to sulphur butterflies
Entomologist Chip Taylor is allergic to sulphur butterflies. Courtesy: Chip Taylor

Chip Taylor – Allergic to butterflies

The Entomologist, Chip Taylor was studying sulphur butterflies but after continuing his work with the species, he was allergic to the point he had asthma-like symptoms when he worked with them. He had to take prednisone, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory drug to avoid serious complications. He had to readjust his study and change his area. He  figured out later that he wasn’t allergic to monarch butterflies may be because they produce different pigments.

Occupational allergies in veterinarians have been common but they don’t require medical attention or diagnosis. Scientists are forced to make major changes because of their allergies in their workplace.

Scientists should be cautious against becoming allergies!

Federal guidelines suggest the laboratories have well-designed air-handling systems and the workers should wear protective equipment or PPE to reduce chances of becoming allergic. Though researchers believe there is little adherence given to such guidelines. Scientists are too involved in the field-work; they don’t pay heed to the PPE or other protective equipment. They don’t consider the long-term effects as they are engrossed in the process.

To reduce allergies, one should reduce exposure to the species, according to allergy researchers. Increasing the safety equipment and keeping a check on the exposure may be expensive but it needs to be taken care of. Some labs use mice and rats to reduce allergies, they use the ventilation systems from the cages or robotic systems to clean them out. Wearing marks, gloves and anti-allergen-contaminated clothing can help reduce the exposure risk.

In a study by Feary and colleagues in 2019, they researched how the ventilated cages of mice had lowered the airborne allergen levels. It was not sufficient to sensitise from mouse allergens but it was a start. The UK has been getting better to prevent occupational allergies by using expensive equipment that ensures less allergen exposure. They use robotic cage cleaners especially if they are renovating old facilities.

This might be common but, not many are aware of it in the community. Scientists should remain vigilant while working in the laboratories while wearing protective garb to avoid any allergic reaction. It would be disheartening to see scientists give up on their studies because of allergies.



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