Can allergies protect you from skin cancer?

When people experience allergic reactions, a blood protein or antibody, called Immunoglobin E (IgE) has recognized an allergen, interpreted it as harmful, and initiated the reaction that leads to allergy symptoms. According to some scientists, this same reaction can occur when we are exposed to environmental chemicals like those found in polluted air or tobacco smoke. This idea is known as the Toxin Hypothesis.

Researchers at Imperial College London studying the relationship between IgE and skin cancer have published new findings in Nature Immunology on how IgE may be able to protect the skin from developing cancer. This team of researchers had hypothesized that a function of IgE may be to protect against environmental chemicals, which is why IgE levels rise in response to these potentially harmful substances.

To test their idea, the scientists exposed the skin of mice to toxic chemicals. They found that this exposure did indeed cause IgE to travel to the skin and also to lower the chances of skin cancer developing in these mice. The researchers also observed skin tumors from 12 patients with a common form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Every tumor they observed had IgE in it. Interestingly, though, the tumors that were less dangerous contained higher levels of IgE, while the tumors that were more threatening had lower levels of IgE.

Given that lower risk skin tumors were associated with higher levels of IgE, the scientists concluded that IgE may have a protective function for the skin and through this function, may prevent skin damage from developing into cancer. The details of how IgE could impart this protective effect on the skin are not yet clear, but the Imperial College London researchers hope that they will be able to uncover ways to use IgE to prevent or treat skin cancer.

While this study focused on IgE levels as they relate to environmental chemical exposure, new lines of research will likely investigate whether IgE levels associated with allergies and allergic reactions can confer the same kinds of benefits for the skin. It is possible that people who experience allergies and elevated IgE levels may have higher IgE levels on their skin in response, for example, to sun damage. If that were the case, the body’s natural reaction to allergens could help protect against skin cancer. More research is needed to understand the connection between IgE and skin cancer and the contexts in which IgE may be able to provide health benefits.

Author
Dr. Summit Shah

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