“I was happy because I was putting new light on the molecular composition of wine, and solving another little piece of the complicated puzzle,” says Palmisano. “I was afraid because I wondered what the economic impact could be. But then I realized that people who haven’t experienced any allergy will not be affected by the discovery; but people who do suffer from an allergy can now target a culprit. So there will be no negative economic impact.”
But before people with an allergy to wine start dusting off their corkscrews, Palmisano warns that, while the findings will help scientists to understand the chemical link between glycoproteins and certain allergens, clinical trials are needed to discover whether glycoproteins actually trigger reactions. And even then, he believes it may not be possible to eliminate the glycoproteins from the drink.
“The composition of wine is incredibly complex,” he says. “So you can imagine that whenever you remove something, you can never be that selective. If you remove glycoproteins, you will remove other components, which could even be aromatic components – and then you will spoil the wine.”
Others have suggested that genetic modification could in theory be used to rid the wine of the glycoproteins if they are found to be problematic – but Palmisano says that route is fraught with hazards, and that modifying single proteins is extremely difficult, especially for a product such as wine that is mass-produced.
Still, Palmisano believes the study could help scientists find a solution that doesn’t alter the grape or the wine, but instead changes the patient. “If we know what these molecules are doing, and what their structures are, we can open our window of opportunity against them,” he says. “So instead of modifying the wine itself, we can build therapeutic interventions.”
Andrew Waterhouse, chair of the Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California Davis, is more optimistic about actually modifying the wine – while still pleasing the palette. He says that, if glycoproteins prove to be the culprits behind some reactions, they could in theory be removed, making wine tolerable even to those with allergies.
“We don’t currently have specific winemaking methods to affect glycoprotein levels – there has been no call for such procedures – but it would not be hard to create such a procedure,” he says. While Palmisano’s findings only show the similarities between wine glycoproteins and those found in known allergens, and do not yet establish cross-reactivity, Waterhouse still finds this a very exciting lead.
“We do have methods to reduce protein levels, so it may be possible to extend those to glycoprotein.”
From here on, researchers other than Palmisano will have to take the lead, as the scientist plans on returning his attention to his main area of study: the role of glycoproteins in the spread of tumor cells in cancer. Still, he hopes that experts in the allergy field will build on his early findings, and possibly even launch clinical trials.
“In Denmark, we don’t have the infrastructure and the patients to do the follow-up,” says Palmisano, who has received dozens of e-mails and calls from allergists who treat patients with severe reactions to wine, as well as requests for his study. A large European pharmaceutical company is also looking closely at the study.
In the meantime, Kishari Sing says she can wait. She has grown accustomed to a life without alcohol – although her business clients often question why she’s not sharing the wine at lunches and dinners. Still, if science found a way for her to enjoy what some call the nectar of the gods, she wouldn’t say no.
“I sent my friend to a chocolate and wine pairing event, and I was just dying that I couldn’t experience that,” says Sing, a self-professed foodie. “And I’d love to do a wine tasting tour in the Napa Valley, then have a really great multi-course dinner where they serve a different wine with each course, because I spend a lot of time cooking but feel like I’m missing out on half the equation. So that’s the kind of thing I’d love to do.”
See also: What Causes Your Reaction to Alcohol?
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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