Allergy sufferers may be feeling a bit helpless these days, as certain symptoms they've been familiar with for years are now coinciding with those of COVID-19, leading to uncertainty and extra vigilance.

Help could be on the way, however, thanks to the research of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School associate professor Dr. Mark Siracusa.

He said antihistamines are helpful but rarely provide lasting relief, and scheduling allergy shots at a doctor's office could be a months- or even yearslong process, too disruptive for the daily lives of many.

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By focusing on mast cells, which Siracusa called "buckets of histamine" that are the body's main driver of allergic inflammation, a theoretically therapeutic, at-home remedy could cut off allergy and asthma symptoms at their source.

"What we're looking at is actually targeting a specific molecule in a progenitor cell that turns into a mast cell, which we believe we can do with just essentially an oral tablet," Siracusa said. "You're talking about something that could be taken with the relative ease of an antihistamine, but be a lot more effective."

What's more, according to Siracusa, is that working to eliminate mast cells -- "small in number but extremely potent," he said -- could aid in the treatment of related diseases that are considerably more lethal than garden-variety allergies, such as certain types of leukemia.

The mast cell, a type of white blood cell, is the immune system's first line of defense, but can overreact to certain stimuli. That's when things get complicated where asthma and allergies are concerned.

Funding from the New Jersey Health Foundation and others has allowed Siracusa to advance his findings to the drug discovery phase, providing hope that something could be available to New Jerseyans with allergies in the foreseeable future.

"We have the targets identified, but really, you have to modify the actual drug compounds to be highly effective and safe, so that these patients would be able to take them," Siracusa said. "There are groups of people constantly working to try to come up with better treatment strategies for them, and the more we get things out into the public so that they know that, I think that's extremely important."

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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