Over the last 15 years, thousands of Americans have become allergic to meat. The connection?
They were all bitten by the Lone Star tick.
Just one bite from this critter - so named because of a Texas-shaped white mark on its back - can render a human allergic to meat forever. This follows itchy hives, stomach cramps and even breathing problems or death.
While the Lone Star-induced allergy was previously only reported in the southeaster United States, it has recently started to spread through Minnesota, Hanover, New Hampshire and as far as Long Island - which, according to a report in Wired - has seen at least 100 reported cases in the last year.
Now the onus is on working out whether the tick has spread, or whether different tick species are also causing meat allergies.
Scientists are working hard to log all incidences of the meat allergy, which is thought to be the result of the tick bite 'reprogramming' the immune system. This creates an allergy to a meat-based sugar (yes, there is a tiny amount) called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose.
Making the connection
During the 1990s, there was a strange increase in the number of mysterious meat allergies, but it wasn't until 2004, immunologist Thomas Platts-Mills who heads up the allergy research division at The University of Virginia, made a connection between two groups of people he had heard were experiencing the same symptoms.
A group of cancer patients being treated with a drug called cetuximab were experiencing itching, swelling, and a dangerous drop in blood pressure as well as sweating and breaking out in hives. The same people with sudden-onset meat allergy.
He found that patients living in the southeast were 10 times as likely to suffer from these side effects.
Platts-Mills discovered that these patients who had the allergic reaction to the drug had pre-existing allergies to meat sugar galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose - a substance abundant in cetuximab.
Geographically, the areas with the highest reports of cetuximab side effect sufferers overlapped with previously reported meat allergies.
When Platts-Mills himself experienced tick-induced meat allergy, it led to a breakthrough. Interviewing people with meat allergies, Platts-Mills found that 80 per cent of them reported being bitten by a tick.
He also found that the tick bites led a 20-fold increase in galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose antibodies. This led him to theorize that something in the Lone Star's saliva hijacks the immune system in humans, flags up galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose antibodies, triggering a massive histamine release when the substance is consumed (i.e. when the person eats red meat).
What the scientists don't know, is what it is about the saliva that creates this response, something they are paying acute interest to, as this allergic reaction to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose is though to be the only allergy that affects all people of all genetic make-ups and environmental factors.
Platts-Mills and his team are currently building a map of where the meat allergies happen, relying mainly on local news reports, and trying to get blood samples after outbreaks to try to discover whether the saliva comes from the Lone Star or another tick.
Currently, there is no 'cure' for the meat allergy. After being bitten by the Lone Star, people simply have to avoid eating it.
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