By Ashley Mooney

Courtesy of Nicole Leung.

For some undergraduates, research ideas stem from summer camp.

Junior Nicole Leung, a biology major concentrating on pharmacology, is doing an independent study on allergies and pediatric immunology. She works in Dr. Wesley Burks’ lab at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and explained that her interest in allergies first started when she was a volunteer at a summer camp.

“I was taking care of a little boy who was allergic to so many foods and he had to carry an epi-pen around with him all the time,” she said. “It was my first exposure to such a serious problem with allergies.”

“It was really hard for me to see a boy who was so close to being normal be completely abnormal during camp,” she said, adding that because of the boy’s severe allergies, he was very shy and had a hard time making friends.

Leung saw the challenge of severe allergies again in college when a gluten allergy started to affect her freshman-year roommate.

Now, Leung is trying to understand whether people can develop a long-term tolerance to food allergies, even though there is currently no cure for allergic diseases. The lab is also developing immune-system therapies to sensitize patients to allergens and see how long they can withstand the allergic effects.

“Very little is known about allergies, but they tell a lot about our immune system,” she said, adding that “as the human population grows, I think that allergies are going to be a major concern in the future, so this field has great potential.”

In Leung’s previous research, she compared several allergy tests to find which best predicts the severity of allergic reactions. Most common allergy tests, like the skin-prick test and the blood-based ImmunoCAP test, do not determine how severely people may be allergic to certain substances.

Courtesy of Nicole Leung.

“They only will tell you that you’re allergic but you might not have a reaction to it,” she said.

Using a statistical analysis, Leung found that the basophil activation test has a much higher correlation to severity than the skin-prick or ImmunoCAP tests.

“With the basophil activation test, we mix allergens in blood and try to see whether a certain allergen will cause basophils to degranulate and release histamines, which is what triggers the allergy symptoms,” she said. “Because these activated basophils expose CD63 molecules on their surface, we can determine the percentage activated and use cutoff points to identify whether the person is allergic.”

She added that the test only requires a small amount of blood and is a relatively quick procedure. But there are still questions of how it can be applied to clinical practice.

For Leung, the hardest aspect of research is digging through background information to find out how to move her project forward.

“None of the articles point you to a clear answer, and that is the most challenging part of research. But it is also the most exciting part because you get to test your own hypotheses,” she said.

Besides her allergy research, Leung also works in a neuroeconomics lab that looks at risky decision-making in gambling. The lab uses eye trackers to measure how much a test subject’s eyes dilate and how often they shift their eyes between two choices—one risky option, and one safer one.

Although Leung said she has a more direct role in the design and implementation of her allergy research, she said she enjoys meeting and interacting with the families who participate the neuroeconomics study.