November 12, 2020

Timothy Moran

Timothy Moran, M.D., Ph.D., and an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and an NIEHS funded researcher.
(Photo courtesy of Timothy Moran)

Timothy Moran, M.D., Ph.D., is investigating the role of environmental factors in food allergy development. His research suggests that food allergies may be caused in part by environmental exposures, rather than purely by genetics. His research centers on the question of whether there is a difference in the indoor environment of children with peanut allergies and the indoor environment of those without a peanut allergy.

“There has been an estimated tripling of peanut allergy in children over the last 20 to 30 years. This marked increase in food allergy really cannot be explained by genetics alone and indicates that there are likely some environmental factors that are contributing to this rapid rise in food allergies, particularly peanut allergy”.

According to Moran, early life exposure to food allergens is likely to play a role in whether a person goes on to develop a food allergy.

With support from the NIEHS-funded Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility, Moran and his colleague Michael Kulis are using an animal model that mimics environmental exposure to food allergens through non-oral routes. Because children spend most of their time indoors, Moran is mostly focused on how exposures within the home are contributing to food allergy development.

“The thought is that possible exposure to these [allergens] in household dust through either the respiratory tract or the skin may program the immune system to develop an allergic response. Whereas if you eat the food normally, that typically programs the immune system to ignore it [the allergen] so that we do not become allergic to the food.”

In an animal model, Moran and his team found that if a mouse is exposed to both peanut allergen and household dust containing environmental adjuvants, which are compounds that stimulate an immune response, then the mouse develops peanut allergy. However, if the mouse is only exposed to either household dust or peanut allergen alone, then mice do not develop peanut allergy. His goal is to build upon their findings and identify what adjuvants in household dust are most important in the development of peanut allergies. Moving forward, he hopes to determine how to intervene and decrease the adjuvants found in dust to help protect children from developing food allergies.

Moran’s research describing how the timing of exposure to adjuvants and peanut allergen affects peanut allergy development was recently published as a letter in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.