Research breakthrough to help diagnosis of potentially life-threatening shellfish allergy

New research into seafood has pinpointed one of the proteins responsible for the body’s reaction to shellfish, and more specifically can isolate whether an allergy is to crustaceans or molluscs.

Someone diagnosed with a shellfish allergy has to avoid all varieties of the aquatic creatures, but the breakthrough means sufferers could further isolate their intolerance.

A new study from James Cook University and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has identified one of the proteins responsible for allergies in shellfish.

Tropomyosin is a protein found in the muscle tissue of molluscs – such as abalone, oysters and octopus – but not in crustaceans.

Severine Navarro says the research means food allergy diagnoses need to be revised.  (Supplied: QIMR Berghofer)

QIMR Berghofer associate professor Severine Navarro said allergen testing meant people were “falling through the cracks”.

An allergy to shellfish is diagnosed with a skin test, exposing the patient to prawns, but a protein found in molluscs can also cause a separate reaction.

Dr Navarro said the test is often inaccurate.

Crustacean vs molluscs

The head of JCU’s molecular allergy research laboratory, Professor Andreas Lopata, says allergy to prawns is fairly widespread.

“Allergy to molluscs is not uncommon, but it can be independent to shrimps,” Dr Lopata said.

Dr Lopata said some people could also test positive to both types of seafood.

“While both of them are some type of food allergy, an allergy to crustacean seems to be different to an allergy to abalone and muscles.”

Colourful lobster held in a net over fish tanks.
Each crustacean has a different protein fingerprint.(ABC News: Bec Whetham)

Dr Lopata said future testing, which would encompass seafood, crustacean and mollusc exposure, would mean sufferers could pinpoint their trigger foods.

“[It] might be a shrimp, it might be an oyster, or it might be a mussel.”

Future of testing

Dr Lopata said the protein chain of an oyster was different to that of an octopus, meaning tests could be trialled for each animal.

The next step would be to provide the proteins to diagnostic companies so sufferers can identify which types of molluscs and crustaceans are on the menu. 

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