Scientists Can Literally Become Allergic to Their Research

This story originally appeared on Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Bryan Fry’s heart was pounding as he stepped back from the snake enclosure and examined the bite marks on his hand. He had just been bitten by a death adder, one of Australia’s most venomous snakes. Its neurotoxin-laced bite could cause vomiting, paralysis and—as the name suggests—death.

Fry, at the time a graduate student, had kept snakes for years. Oddly, the neurotoxins weren’t his biggest worry; the nearby hospital would have the antivenom he needed, and, although data is limited, people who receive treatment generally survive. Anaphylactic shock, on the other hand, might kill him within minutes.

“Anaphylactic shock is the single worst feeling you can possibly imagine,” recalled Fry, now a biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “It is just insane. Every cell in your body is screaming out in mortal terror.”

Fry, who had spent his life admiring and eventually studying venomous snakes, had become deathly allergic to them.

While most cases are not so extreme, anecdotal reports and expert analysis suggest that it is far from rare for scientists, students, and laboratory technicians to develop allergies to the organisms they study. Perversely, some allergy researchers say, it is the researchers’ passion for their subjects—the close observation, the long hours of work each day, and the years of commitment to a research project—that puts them at such high risk.

“It is true that some things cause allergies more often than others, but the biggest factor is the frequency of the interaction with the study organism,” said John Carlson, a physician and researcher at Tulane University who specializes in insect and dust mite allergies. “You probably have about a 30 percent chance of developing an allergy to whatever it is that you study.” While data is limited, that estimate is in line with research on occupational allergies, which studies suggest occur in as many as 44 percent of people who work with laboratory rodents, around 40 percent of veterinarians, and 25 to 60 percent of people who work with insects.

Federal guidelines suggest that laboratories have “well-designed air-handling systems” and that workers don appropriate personal protective equipment, or PPE, to reduce the risk of developing an allergy. However, interviews with researchers and experts suggest that there may be little awareness of—or adherence to—guidelines like these. For scientists working with less common species and those engaged in fieldwork, information on what exactly constitutes appropriate PPE may be very limited.

Many researchers, perhaps especially those who do fieldwork, are used to being uncomfortable in service of their work, Carlson points out. “I think that a lot of researchers are so interested in the process of the research,” he said, “that they aren’t really considering the long-term effects that it could have on them.”

In general, allergies develop when the immune system overreacts to a substance that is usually harmless, or relatively harmless. The immune system monitors the body for potentially dangerous invaders like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Sometimes, for reasons that are not well understood, the immune system identifies something benign, like pollen or animal dander, as dangerous. To help mark the intruder, a person who has become sensitized in this way produces antibodies, or types of proteins, to identify it.

When that person comes into contact with the substance again, the antibodies flag it as an invader. As part of the response, immune cells release compounds like histamine, which irritate and inflame the surrounding tissues, resulting in allergy symptoms.

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