Dust mites, common in most human habitats are also one of the most common causes of allergies. Dr Kavita Reginald, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Biological Sciences at Sunway University has made it her interest to study these microscopic arachnids.
According to Dr Kavita, there are about 10 common dust mite species which can be found in the home environment, each capable of causing allergies. For her doctoral research, she focused on identifying the different allergens produced by dust mites. Material from dust mites was isolated and through gene sequencing techniques it was found that each mite is capable of producing over 30 distinct allergens.
It was during this time that Dr Kavita discovered a new dust mite allergen. “Upon further characterisation, this new allergen was found to be an important cause of allergic reactions within the local population. This allergen was subsequently named Der f 22 (the 22nd allergen identified from the house dust mite Dermatophagoides farinae) by the international allergen nomenclature committee”, explained Dr Kavita.
Another of her research contribution is the initial identification of two epitopes (IgE antibody binding molecular signatures) of a very potent allergen, Der p 2 that was shown to be potential immunotherapy molecules as shown by mouse model experiments.
Dr Kavita, whose research area is focussed on allergy and immunology is particularly interested in understanding the genetic and immunological factors that contribute to allergic conditions.
Besides researching into dust mites, her other notable works include identifying and patenting a novel protein of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus as an initial diagnostic target for atopic dermatitis. These bacteria are specifically found on skin lesions of patients suffering from atopic dermatitis, a common type of eczema. She has also contributed to research on the molecular mechanisms of immune cells – which dives deep into understanding how signalling proteins “communicate” when immune cells are activated (in infections or allergies).
Allergic diseases are a global health problem which affects up to 25% of the world’s population, and represents a heavy burden for both the patients and the health care system.
“While the immune mechanisms are similar, the symptoms of allergic diseases are varied, based on the location of the immune reaction and can include conjunctivitis, rhinitis (hay fever), asthma, atopic dermatitis, gastro-intestinal symptoms and life-threatening systemic anaphylaxis. Allergic diseases are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. My research investigates both these aspects to obtain a holistic understanding on allergies and its causes”, said Dr Kavita.
According to Dr Kavita, current research points towards the influence of small errors in the genome, also known as single nucleotide polymorphism in certain genes can cause an individual to be atopic, or genetically susceptible to an allergic response to certain triggers. In fact, recent studies in individuals with atopic dermatitis showed that mutation in the filaggrin gene is the most significant risk factor for this disorder.
“My group is studying the genetic factors associated with allergic rhinitis among individuals of the Han Chinese heritage. Interestingly, our data has revealed that the majority of the risk genes identified in our population were novel in their links to allergic rhinitis. At present we are characterising these genes, to better understand their role in the mechanisms of allergic rhinitis.”
An allergic reaction happens when a foreign antigen (or allergen) is recognised by the immune system (specifically IgE antibodies). This leads to the activation of the system causing downstream symptoms of allergies such as breathlessness, wheezing, itchy eyes, and runny nose. With regards to major allergens which affect the Malaysian population, Dr Kavita characterises and identifies the source (dust mites, pollen, cockroaches, fungus) as well as the molecular signatures of these allergens. She hopes to come up with better diagnostic tools in identifying specific allergens.
Dr Kavita completed seven years of post-doctoral research in Austria and France in the area of immunology research. For her, possessing information on the molecular signatures (epitopes) is very useful in designing safe and effective immunotherapy molecules for allergy treatment.
She cites that “Allergen immunotherapy is the only curative therapy of allergy, and its effects are long lasting, even after therapy is stopped. Allergen immunotherapy is a really exciting area of translational clinical research that I would like to explore in the future. The development of safe and effective immunotherapy is really the holy grail in treating allergies. However, we still need to first characterise the molecular signatures (or epitopes) and use this knowledge to design immunotherapy vaccines. Some of my current work in the area is in characterising the epitopes of several important dust mite allergens.”
For Dr Kavita, research and scientific advancements have no real meaning or impact unless its shared, and understood by the masses. “In this spirit, I bring various aspects of my research, news of the latest advancements in the field of immunology and insights from recent scientific publications into the classroom at any possible opportunity”, explained Dr Kavita who lectures on Clinical Chemistry, Pathology and Immunology.
Since joining Sunway University three years ago, she tries to expose her students to diverse laboratory techniques in allergy research, such as allergy diagnosis or to quantify levels of allergens within dust. Dr Kavita believes these experiments will help expose students to the practical aspects of her research area.