It’s a bizarre, circuitous story. The best kind.
Several years ago, a researcher working on the development of cancer drug cetuximab found that several people in his clinical trials were experiencing allergic reactions to the medication.
He approached the Director of the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s allergy division Thomas Platts-Mills to help him discover the cause of the allergy but they were unable to ascertain it. In 2004, the drug received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of colorectal cancer.
Shortly after the drug hit the market and doctors began prescribing it, an oncologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina found that almost a quarter of his patients that were taking cetuximab were manifesting allergic reactions along with dangerous drops in blood pressure.
The oncologist reported the allergy and the team of doctors and scientists who investigated found that the phenomenon was occurring ten times more frequently in the Southeast of the United States than anywhere else in the country.
Dr. Platts-Mills and several others partnered with the drug manufacturer (Bristol-Myers Squibb) to study the drug more closely.
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They compared blood samples from people in different parts of the country who had experienced the reaction and the team was able to narrow down the cause of the allergy to a common factor: the blood of those with the allergy contained antibodies to alpha-gal, a blood sugar found in non-primate mammals. Cetuximab is made from genetically-modified mice whose blood contains alpha-gal.