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New allergy drug may provide relief for persistent seasonal allergies

POSTED: May 5, 2014 12:11 a.m.

A newly approved drug may offer allergy sufferers relief from Northeast Georgia’s long pollen seasons.

Grastek, an allergy tablet taken under the tongue and recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is specifically designed to tackle allergy symptoms resulting from grass pollen.

“It’s really exciting,” said Dr. Ronald Beebe, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at The Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville.

“Living in this region, we have such a long, hard grass pollen season that it drives a lot of allergies in Georgia,” he added.

Grass pollen is traditionally in the summer, Beebe said, but for this area it typically starts earlier in the spring and goes through the fall.

The pill is the first of its kind; allergy shots were previously the only form of immunotherapy for patients.

“By immunotherapy, we mean treating the allergies by sort of manipulating the immune system,” he said. “With the shots, you take them weekly and you build up until you’re desensitized.”

Patients are desensitized by receiving doses of what they are allergic to in order for their body to build up resistance.

Grastek contains Timothy grass, one of the most common grasses in the United States. Timothy grass is cross-reactive to other grasses, therefore “the proteins, which are what the allergens are, in Timothy are found in almost all grasses,” Beebe said.

'That means regardless of a person’s allergy to a specific type of grass, the pill should still be effective.

Beebe stressed the new drug shouldn’t be confused with an over-the-counter antihistamine, such as Zyrtec or nasal sprays.

Those block symptoms, but don’t actually change the immune system.

Grastek is also shown to pose fewer risks than traditional allergy shots.

“When you take things orally, it has to pass through the GI tract, and it alters it,” Beebe said. “When you go with a shot, we’re going directly into you, so it can directly affect the immune system, potentially leading to a severe reaction,” he said. “It’s the route that makes a difference.”

“The reason this treatment is groundbreaking is because for years, people have had to take shots, and they risk severe reactions,” he continued, adding patients receiving shots always remain in the office for 30 minutes afterward for observation.

“(With Grastek) that’s tremendously reduced to the point where patients can take it at home,” he said.

For the pill to properly take effect, patients will need to begin dosage three months before grass pollen starts so it can build up in the body’s system.

“By starting early, you’re already protected when that grass pollen hits,” Beebe said. “You don’t wait until you have trouble from the grass pollen.”

“For example, if I were seeing a patient today and putting them on this pill, I would’ve made them start Feb. 1,” he said.

However, Beebe added that because of the area’s extreme pollen season, patients who were good candidates for the new drug could begin taking it and continue throughout the year, giving them protection against pollen by building up resistance.

“The other option is to take it all year long, just to have that protection when the pollen starts,” he said. “Studies show it’s effective doing it either way.”

The initial dose should be taken in the allergist’s or doctor’s office, so any potential allergic reactions can be monitored. The following dosages can be taken at home, once a day throughout the pollen season or longer.

Because of the often resilient pollen season in the area, Beebe recommended the dosage time period be determined by an allergist to meet the needs of each patient.

As with any drug, Grastek has some side effects.

“Ear itching and local irritation in your mouth are the major side effects, but we consider those minimal. We can work around those,” Beebe said.

Grastek requires a prescription and is expected to be widely available within the next two weeks, Beebe said. The drug is approved for use in patients aged 5 to 65 years.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Beebe said. “We’re excited about it, and it’s something good for patients, and that’s the main thing.”

Beebe also mentioned the company behind the product is planning pills for ragweed pollen, which is heavy in the fall, and dust mites.


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