Bryan Fry’s heart pounded as he walked away from the snake’s enclosure and examined the bite marks on his hand. He had just been bitten by a follower of death, one of Australia’s most poisonous snakes. His neurotoxic bite could cause vomiting, paralysis, and – as the name suggests – death.
Fry, then a graduate student, had herded snakes for years. Oddly enough, neurotoxins weren’t his biggest concern; the nearby hospital would have the antivenom it needed, and although data is limited, people who receive treatment generally survive. Anaphylactic shock, on the other hand, could kill him within minutes.
“Anaphylactic shock is the worst feeling you can imagine,” recalled Fry, now a biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “It’s just insane. Every cell in your body screams in deadly terror.
Fry, who had spent his life admiring and ultimately studying poisonous snakes, had become fatally allergic to them.
While most cases are not so extreme, anecdotal reports and expert analysis suggest that it is far from uncommon for scientists, students, and lab technicians to develop allergies to the organisms they have. they study. Perversely, some allergy researchers say, it is researchers’ passion for their subjects – careful observation, long hours of work each day, and years of commitment to a research project – that exposes them to a such risk.
“It is true that some things cause allergies more often than others, but the most important factor is the frequency of the interaction with the organism studied,” said John Carlson, physician and researcher at the University of Tulane, specializing in insect and dust mite allergies. “You probably have about a 30% chance of developing an allergy to anything you study.” Although the data are limited, this estimate is consistent with research on work-related allergies, which studies suggest. up to 44 percent people working with laboratory rodents, around 40 percent veterinarians, and 25 at 60 percentage of people who work with insects.
Federal guidelines suggest that laboratories have “well-designed air handling systems” and that workers wear appropriate personal protective equipment, or PPE, to reduce the risk of developing an allergy. However, interviews with researchers and experts suggest that guidelines like these are little known or little followed. For scientists working with less common species and those engaged in the field, information on what exactly constitutes suitable PPE can be very limited.
Many researchers, perhaps especially those working in the field, are used to being uncomfortable serving their work, Carlson points out. “I think a lot of researchers are so interested in the research process,” he said, “that they don’t really consider the long-term effects it might 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 not fully understood, the immune system identifies something benign, like pollen or animal dander, as dangerous. To help tag the intruder, a person sensitized in this way produces antibodies, or types of proteins, to identify them.
When that person comes in contact with the substance again, the antibodies signal them as an invader. As part of the response, immune cells release compounds like histamine, which irritate and inflame surrounding tissue, leading to allergy symptoms.