Strategies target mast cells, the primary cause of asthma and allergies

Asthma and allergies are chronic health conditions that continue to adversely impact the quality of life for many around the world. Thanks to exciting breakthroughs by Mark Siracusa, a researcher at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, there may be early signs of light at the end of the tunnel.

According to Siracusa, many allergies are difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat, and doctors prescribe numerous medications that merely mitigate some of the symptoms without preventing the disease. Siracusa focused his attention and research on mast cells, a type of white blood cell that is part of the first line of defense in the body’s immune system but also the primary driver for asthma and allergies.

“Although we’ve known about mast cells for over 100 years, they have remained very challenging to study,” said Siracusa, director of the Research Support Core and associate professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "These advances have allowed us to uncover new and exciting therapeutic targets that can bring significant relief to patients.”

By taking advantage of emerging technologies, we have been able to generate tools that, for the first time, allow us to study [mast] cells at a very granular level.

Mark Siracusa, PhD

Associate Professor of Medicine, New Jersey Medical School

Mast cells live between the external and internal tissues, detecting foreign bodies and releasing chemicals to alert the immune system. However, allergies and asthma can occur if the mast cells overreact to non-threatening stimulants, thereby causing the immune system to kick in even when no threat exists.

With funding from the Foundation Venture Capital Group (FVCG), an affiliate of the New Jersey Health Foundation (NJHF) (which is itself an affiliate of the Foundation for Health Advancement), and support from Rutgers Office for Research, Siracusa founded NemaGen Discoveries, Inc., a biotech startup aimed at advancing therapies for patients suffering from mast cell-related diseases and chronic inflammation.

“The missions of NJHF and NemaGen are fully aligned – to improve the quality of life for suffering patients. We are excited that our funding will help to advance NemaGen’s research, which can potentially lead to the solution that these patients need,” said George F. Heinrich, MD, vice chair and CEO of NJHF and FVCG. “We look forward to working with Dr. Siracusa and Rutgers University to successfully commercialize NemaGen’s technology.”

The Rutgers startup was established to identify novel approaches to disrupt and combat mast cells, which up until now have had the upper hand over medicine’s treatment of the two diseases. Examples of allergies include hay fever, food allergies, and eczema, as well as more dangerous diseases such as mastocytosis and mast cell activation syndrome.

“Dr. Siracusa’s groundbreaking research in allergic inflammation and mast cell-mediated diseases could prove to be critical in the treatment of allergies and asthma,” said Tatiana Litvin-Vechnyak, PhD, associate vice president of Innovation Ventures in the Rutgers Office for Research. “His work epitomizes Rutgers’ ‘Jersey Roots, Global Reach’ philosophy, and his continuing research has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people all over the world.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from allergies or asthma, including nearly 300 million with asthma alone. In the United States, the annual cost from these two diseases is over $18 billion.

Siracusa described NemaGen’s next steps and what FVCG’s funding allows the company to accomplish. “The NJHF has been a long-time collaborator in advancing research at Rutgers. They immediately recognized the clinical relevance of our work at a very early stage, and provided us with business-minded guidance and seed funding to progress our drug discovery programs. With the support of both institutions, we can further advance our novel chemical compounds that possess exciting therapeutic potential.”