New £1.2M NERC Grant Aims to Revolutionise Pollen Forecasting

A team of researchers are developing a new generation of pollen monitoring which they hope will lead to improved forecasts for thousands of the UK population suffering from summer allergies.

For millions of people, the onset of spring and summer brings misery as they battle with itchy eyes and sneezing brought about by their reaction to pollen.  Around 5% of the adult UK population has reported suffering hay fever and around 10% suffer asthma that can be aggravated by pollen.

However, with around 150 different species of grass in the UK and no easy way of distinguishing between their different pollen grains, identifying which species of grass pollen people are allergic to is a very difficult task.

Understanding which species of grass pollens are in the air in high quantities at a particular time will allow those with hay fever and asthma to better manage their disease by being aware of risky periods, avoiding exposure and having their medicines to hand. 

A team of researchers is now aiming to revolutionise the UK’s pollen forecasts by using molecular genetic approaches. The UK is in a unique position, since teams of researchers led by Dr. Natasha de Vere at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and Aberystwyth University have made a DNA reference library for UK plants that can be used to identify most species. Combined with DNA sequencing, the UK plant database can be used to identify which species, or combination of species, are linked to asthma attacks.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has awarded a three year grant to a consortium of universities to carry out the research, led by Bangor University, along with the Universities of Aberystwyth, Exeter, Worcester and the Met Office.

Dr Simon Creer, the coordinator from Bangor University’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “I have suffered pollen allergies for almost 30 years and now we have an opportunity to find out which species of grass are linked to one of the worst allergic responses, asthma. In combination with developing new technologies to measure and model pollen, the grant offers an exciting opportunity.”

It is predicted that the new forecasts will give more precise (and shorter) time periods that disease sufferers will have to be cautious in, and provide guidance of when these may occur.

Dr Nick Osborne, health researcher at Universities of Exeter and Sydney, added, “this work will enable health researchers to pinpoint which species of grass pollen is present.  Being much more precise about which pollens are present in which areas, and when, will enable patients to better control their exposure to, and medication for, grass pollen.  As personalised medicine models are rolled out in the future, this work will enable patients to better understand and manage their allergic diseases, placing less of a burden on them, and their healthcare providers.”

The research is being under taken in collaboration with the charities Asthma UK, Allergy UK, British Lung Foundation, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, the Leiden University Medical Centre and Fera Science Ltd. (Fera).

Publication date: 20 October 2015