Scott Commins, MD, PhD, continues to research “alpha-gal” meat allergy and create awareness for the tick-borne illness as a new CDC research study begins. Recognized as a leading national expert, Commins will now guide a US DHHS Tick-Borne Working Group Subcommittee.

Dr. Scott Commins
Scott Commins, MD, PhD

The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has appointed leading alpha-gal allergy expert Scott Commins, MD, PhD, to the national Tick-Borne Disease Working Group. Commins, associate professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology, allergy and immunology and a faculty member at the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center, will serve as co-chair of the alpha-gal allergy subcommittee, providing expertise for a report that will make public health recommendations for disease prevention, treatment and research.

“Being selected to join the group that is mapping the future for funding and education is a tremendous honor,” said Commins, who was among the first researchers to link the allergy to bites from ticks. “We need to expand public awareness for the alpha-gal allergy and recognize the challenges that patients face. We also need to expand the scope of what we know about tick-borne illnesses, as well as how they can affect the immune system – to date, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface.”

Congress established the Group in 2016 as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, to provide subject matter expertise and to review federal efforts related to all tick-borne diseases. Since then, the focus and scope of the Group have expanded, and new members were recently added. Authorized until December, 2022, the Group will review ongoing research activity, and submit a report to the DHHS Secretary and Congress on findings, providing recommendations for the federal response to tick-borne disease every two years. Members of the public may attend meetings in person or via webcast. More information about the Working Group’s website can be found here.

Alpha-gal is a sugar molecule found in animals like cows, pigs and lamb. People do not produce the sugar, but they do make an immune response to it. Commins treats approximately 10 new patients a week with a host of symptoms that include hives and itching, and in severe cases anaphylaxis. He believes ticks inject people with alpha-gal when they bite, and he describes it as a potent awakener for the immune system to produce antibodies for the sugar in red meat, thus triggering the allergic reaction.

CDC Research Study

Commins, with researchers in the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center, is also embarking on a new study with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) to identify connections between tick bites and red meat allergy. Commins says he hopes to better understand why reactions occur several hours after eating red meat, instead of very quickly like in other food allergies, and why some people experience much more severe reactions than others.

“We want to understand the risk factors associated with developing this illness. By understanding the risks, we will be able to more accurately prevent, diagnose, and treat the allergy.”

Researchers plan to collect blood samples from participants, with and without the meat allergy, who are treated for allergies at the UNC Allergy and Immunologic Clinic, UNC North Chatham Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, and the UNC Family Medicine at Pittsboro.

Awareness and Education

Commins has appeared in many local and national news stories discussing the allergy. Last month, he was interviewed for Uncovered, a weekly news program in the United Kingdom.  He also explained to Joe and Terry Graedon on the People’s Pharmacy why the allergy develops in some people, and how it is diagnosed, in this recent program: Show 1167: Will a Tick Bite Make You Allergic to Meat?.

Commins has been invited to serve as a guest speaker at the 14th Annual Commissioner’s Food Safety Forum, sponsored by NC Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. The event is scheduled for Wednesday, August 28, at the NC State Fairgrounds.  The agenda can be found here.