Tick Attack: When Mother Nature Joins the Fight for Animal Rights

lone star tick alpha gal meat allergy

Lone Star Tick

Mother Nature’s New Ally

Animal Rights groups everywhere are (probably) rejoicing after Mother Nature gave them a new ally in the fight for animal rights: the Lone Star Tick. This badass bug with a cowboy name (yes, that’s its real name) is a steak lover’s new nightmare! Victims of this little bugger develop an IgE antibody autoimmune response towards a mammalian sugar, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (more commonly known as “alpha-gal”), found in many of the animals that people generally eat (Steinki et al., 2015) (Galili et al., 1984). Poultry and seafood lovers can rejoice, however! You’ll only find alpha-gal in red meats, so you’re safe… for now.

Once you get bit, you gotta quit!

A 2011 study by Commins et al. noted the rapid increase in cases from the two dozen noted in 2009 to the thousands of cases by 2012. Once someone is bitten by the Lone Star Tick and develops this IgE-mediated immune response towards alpha-gal, there’s a strong possibility their newfound meat allergy may last for the rest of their lives. Patients may experience a wide variety of symptoms ranging from urticaria (hives) and itching to more severe symptoms of anaphylaxis, such as difficulty breathing, which could be fatal. What makes this allergic reaction unique compared to most other food allergies is that it could take up to 2-3 hours after consuming red meat for symptoms to actually present themselves. This is in stark contrast to, say, a peanut allergy, which can produce a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction within minutes of ingestion (Al-Ahmed et al., 2008).red meat allergy lone star tick alpha gal

Tick or Treat!

So how exactly does a tick bite cause a red meat allergy? To understand that, we need to take a closer look at how the phenomenon of allergies even occurs. Allergies are the result of a hypersensitive immune system. You can think of your immune system as a resilient military force, identifying threats and deploying weapons and defenses to keep you healthy and fight infection. However, sometimes the body may confuse a harmless substance for an invader and unleash hell upon it. This means the release of histamines, inflammatory molecules that cause anaphylaxis. In this case, the body forms antibodies against alpha-gal, which is found in red meat. But how does a tick bite cause the release of IgE antibodies against alpha-gal? Remember that all non-primate mammals (so no Old World Monkeys or apes, which includes humans), such as cattle, contain this carbohydrate sugar, alpha-gal. Thus, when the Lone Star Tick feeds on them, it retains the alpha-gal within its digestive red meat allergy alpha gal lone star ticktract. Then, when the tick bites an unsuspecting human, it injects the alpha-gal into the skin, which is thought to be covered in the tick’s saliva. This triggers an immune response of IgE antibodies against the alpha-gal protein. From this point on, that individual’s immune system will recognize alpha-gal as an intruder that needs to be attacked and destroyed. When red meat containing alpha-gal is consumed afterward, the body releases an army of antibodies to attack this now dangerous (but not really dangerous) foreign invader. Indeed, a well-known 2011 study by Commins et al., in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology proved that Lone Star tick bites not only cause this IgE immune response towards alpha-gal, it may be the only cause of it (Commins et al., 2011). Needless to say, this little critter definitely has meat eaters ticked!dult3qmu6xw-kelly-sikkema

You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide!

Hypersensitivity to alpha-gal was first noted due to allergic reactions toward a drug that was being used to treat colorectal cancer called cetuximab. The suffix “-mab” means it’s a monoclonal antibody, which is specific for the Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) Receptor. In the study, the IgE response to cetuximab was determined by fluorometric enzyme immunoassay (Steinke et al., 2015). They had demonstrated that the patients who had reactions to cetuximab also had IgE antibodies specific for this molecule before they started treatment (Steinke et al, 2015). It would later be discovered that the epitope the IgE molecule was recognizing on the cetuximab was none other than—you guessed it: alpha-gal. What was unique was the fact that the cetuximab caused this anaphylaxis reaction to take place rapidly, within 20 minutes. The allergic response to a red meat allergy secondary to tick bites, however, could take several hours to develop. Nevertheless, it was the appearance of such co-localized cases of cetuximab reactions and red meat allergies, all originating in the south-eastern part of the United States, that started to raise eyebrows. Three members of the team of scientists studying this in 2008 even got bitten by ticks and developed a meat allergy (Steinke et al., 2015). Today, cases of Lone Star Tick bites causing red meat allergy are no longer confined to one area of the United States. In fact, its reach now spans almost the entire country. Clearly, the Lone Star Tick only has one message for the carnivores of the human race: you can run, but you can’t hide!red meat allergy lone star tick

Tick Tock: Time for Change

The human body has a unique defense system that works in a very complex and sophisticated way to keep us healthy and free of disease. However, as with any system, there are imperfections. For the animal rights activists out there, the spreading of these Lone Star Ticks may be an unwitting savior in the fight for animal rights. It is no longer a mystery that factory farming is not only unethical and unsustainable, it is leaving a massive carbon footprint and poses serious health risks. Perhaps the work of the Lone Star Tick may truly be in Mother Nature’s best interests. Only time will well. In the meantime, for the rest of us who enjoy prime rib and burgers at barbecues, make sure you bring your bug spray and keep your dogs up to date on their tick prevention medications. The Lone Star Tick isn’t taking any prisoners.

Author: Gaurav Dubey, Biolitics Founder & Host
Editor: Dean Sangalis, Biolitics Editor in Chief

References (all references are hyperlinked to original journal articles)

Al-Ahmed, N., Alsowaidi, S., & Vadas, P. (2008). Peanut allergy: An overview. Allergy, Asthma, and Clinical Immunology : Official Journal of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 4(4), 139-143. doi:1710-1492-4-4-139 [pii]

Commins, S. P., James, H. R., Kelly, E. A., Pochan, S. L., Workman, L. J., Perzanowski, M. S., . . . Platts-Mills, T. A. E. (2011). The relevance of tick bites to the production of IgE antibodies to the mammalian oligosaccharide galactose-α-1,3-galactose. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 127(5), 1286-1293.e6. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2011.02.019 [doi]

Galili, U., Rachmilewitz, E. A., Peleg, A., & Flechner, I. (1984). A unique natural human IgG antibody with anti-alpha-galactosyl specificity. The Journal of Experimental Medicine, 160(5), 1519-1531.

Hedlund, M., Padler-Karavani, V., Varki, N. M., & Varki, A. (2008). Evidence for a human-specific mechanism for diet and antibody-mediated inflammation in carcinoma progression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(48), 18936-18941. doi:10.1073/pnas.0803943105

Steinke, J. W., Platts-Mills, T. A. E., & Commins, S. P. (2015). The alpha-gal story: Lessons learned from connecting the dots. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 135(3), 589-597. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2014.12.1947 [doi]

van Nunen, S. (2015). Tick-induced allergies: Mammalian meat allergy, tick anaphylaxis, and their significance. Asia Pacific Allergy, 5(1), 3-16. doi:10.5415/apallergy.2015.5.1.3 [doi]


To hear a great Radiolab podcast about alpha-gal and the Lone Star Tick, click here! Radiolab has definitely been one of my biggest influences and their podcasts are of a quality we strive for at Biolitics. Thank you all so much for all the great work you do at WNYC!

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