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IgE-mediated allergies, in particular allergic rhino-conjunctivitis and asthma, have reached epidemic proportions, affecting about one third of the population in developed countries. The most effective treatment for allergies is specific immunotherapy (SIT), which involves the injection of increasing doses of an allergen extract to allergic individuals. The current form of SIT was first introduced 1911 and recently celebrated its 100(th) birthday for the treatment of hay fever. The concept of this therapy at the time was straight-forward, since it was believed that pollen contained toxins against which the patient could be vaccinated. However, the understanding became blurred with the discovery that IgE antibodies were the effector molecules of the allergic response. Subsequent research focused on the idea that SIT should induce tolerance keeping the IgE antibodies at bay. In this review, we will discuss the various hypotheses for the mechanism of SIT and we will put forward the concept that allergens may be viewed as "protoxins" which need to be activated by IgE antibodies. Within this framework, protoxin-neutralizing antibodies are the key effector molecules while a shift to Th1 or Treg cells mainly contributes to the efficacy of SIT by helping B cells to produce neutralizing IgG antibodies. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.


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The Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.