Study finds venom from ant bites can modulate immune responses

29 October 2021

A research team led by Professor Billy Chow (Croucher Senior Research Fellowship 2004) from the Research Division for Molecular and Cell Biology, Faculty of Science, the University of Hong Kong (HKU), has identified a new immunomodulatory pathway that is triggered by ant bites.

Allergic reactions occur when allergens such as food, drugs, bites, and stings bind to receptors on mast cells in our immune system. The type of allergic reaction depends on which receptor the allergens bind to. When allergens bind to MRGPRX2 receptors it creates a pseudo allergic reaction, but little is known about this mechanism. Professor Chow’s team studied the allergic reactions from ant bites to better understand the functions of MRGPRX2 at a molecular level.

The research team found that venom released from ant bites contains a defense peptide called P17. This peptide interacts with the MRGPRX2 receptors to activate our immune system, which then activates monocytes to differentiate into macrophages to clear the pathogens and to prevent fungal infection. This is what causes swelling after a bite.

This is the first time scientists have uncovered the immunomodulatory effect of MRGPRX2. Chow’s findings, which were published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, can help biologists in designing new analogues that are agonists or antagonists of MRGPRX2 to deal with host defense, allergic or other immune diseases. Biologists are also exploring P17 as a therapeutic peptide for inflammatory disorders or cancer and other pseudo allergic reactions.

“We demonstrated that peptides isolated from venoms can be used to modulate immune responses and these peptides are abundant in nature. This also reminds us that biodiversity is one of our greatest treasures,” said Chow.

Professor Billy Chow’s research interest lies in novel therapeutic molecules for the treatment of major critical diseases that involve GPCRs. Chow’s expertise lies in GPCRs, particularly their physiological functions, target receptor identification, and the molecular mechanisms of novel bioactive agents. He is the founder of a biotech start-up PhrmaSec Ltd, which is in pursuit of the clinical situations associated with hormonal dysregulation. Chow received his Croucher Senior Research Fellowship in 2004.

To view Chow’s Croucher profile, please click here.