Much still needs to be learned about how food allergies develop and why certain people are more susceptible than others. UNC School of medicine researchers led by Scott Commins, MD, PhD, may be able to answer some of these questions by studying an unusual food allergy to mammalian meat called alpha-gal syndrome.


Thirteen years ago, Scott Commins, MD, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Virginia were attempting to solve an unusual conundrum. People were reporting late-night symptoms ranging from hives to shortness of breath and gastrointestinal issues. The reactions were eventually linked to an allergy to alpha-gal, a molecular sugar found in red meat. Many of the affected reported eating mammalian meat their whole lives without problems. So, why the sudden change?

It wasn’t until some of Commins’ peers also began having reactions — one even needing a trip to the hospital due to anaphylactic shock — that the picture became more clear. Like detectives trying to piece together a case, the researchers sought commonalities among the allergy “victims.” Their answer was surprising: All spent lots of time outdoors.

The team to ask patients if they had a history of tick bites. The answer was a resounding yes.

Now an associate professor at the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the UNC School of Medicine, Commins continues to piece together this mystery.

Read the rest of the story at Endeavors, UNC’s online magazine dedicated to research and creative activity