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Study offers hope for allergy sufferers that don't like shots in doctor's office

| Sunday, May 5, 2013, 11:31 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Asha Patel, an Allegheny General Hospital allergy lab technician, checks the pollen monitors on the roof of the hosptial on the North Side, Thursday, May 2, 2013.

When Dr. Deborah Gentile says her research might put her out of work, the allergist is speaking only half in jest.

Gentile, director of research at Allegheny General Hospital's division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, was a lead author on a recent study that found that drops or tablets taken under the tongue are a safe alternative to allergy shots that must be administered in a doctor's office.

The treatment has been in use in Europe for nearly 15 years and could be approved for use in the United States within the next two years, Gentile said. The oral therapy provides relief faster than shots, which must be administered over a period of months, and carries the added advantage that it can be administered in the home, Gentile said.

New advances cannot come soon enough for the 35 million Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, suffer from allergies triggered by a variety of factors ranging from foods to tree pollens.

Gentile said private pharmaceutical companies including Merck and Greer Laboratories Inc. have invested heavily in research in new allergy treatments and diagnostic techniques.

Their interest is easy to understand in light of government studies that peg the annual cost of allergy treatments at more than $12 billion a year. The figure includes an estimated $1.3 billion in doctor's office visits and $11 billion for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The indirect cost of allergies in missed days of work or school, lost productivity and, in extreme cases, death was estimated at $2.2 billion a year.

Talk of treatment advances is especially relevant as tree pollen counts hit peak levels this month in Pittsburgh, triggering runny noses, itchy eyes and sneezing in the city the Allergy and Asthma Foundation ranked as 39th in the 100 worst nationally for allergies this year.

“Quite a few things are in clinical trials,” said Angel Waldron of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.

Waldron said Dymista, a new prescription nasal spray that combines an antihistamine with an anti-inflammatory agent, is proving helpful to many.

Gentile and Dr. David Skoner, director of Allegheny General's division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, hold high hopes that new diagnostic tools and treatments will yield major gains for the 40 percent of children younger than 10 who suffer from allergies.

“Unfortunately, the sniffles and sneezes are just the beginning of the problems,” Gentile said.

She said failure to manage those symptoms can lead to poor sleep and learning difficulties, among other problems.

The Pittsburgh researchers said they are cautiously optimistic that the new treatments will be effective for children and might even prevent them from developing asthma, which about a third of children with allergies eventually experience.

Meanwhile, they pointed to two new “dry” nasal sprays, beclomethasone and ciclesonide, as promising options for children who might tolerate them better than water-based sprays.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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