By Eric Boodman
Asha Patel knows more about what goes into your lungs than you do.
Every weekday at 8 a.m., the researcher climbs onto the roof of Allegheny General Hospital, in Pittsburgh, to check a machine called a Burkard Spore Trap.
It looks like a cross between a praying mantis and a weather vane.
As it rotates in the wind, it sucks air onto a strip of tape that Patel has painted with petroleum jelly.
The particles floating through the air may be invisible to the rest of us, but when they get caught on that sticky surface, Patel looks at them under a microscope and knows exactly what they are.
She is in charge of Pittsburgh’s daily pollen and spore count, which she emails out to allergists, their patients and weather channels.
As many as 50 million Americans suffer from environmental allergies, according to the American College of Asthma, Allergies and Immunology, and the pollen and spores that Patel measures are among the main culprits.
Avoiding these particles is impossible, so we spray steroids up our noses, take pills, squirt eye drops and go to the doctor for allergy shots.
Now, we can also reshape our immune system with allergy tablets that dissolve under the tongue, with brand names Ragwitek, Grastek and Oralair.
These drugs were approved by the FDA in April and May, and while they could change the landscape of allergy treatment in America, some doctors are skeptical about how useful they are in their current form.
Allergists explain that each kind of pollen or spore that Patel identifies under her microscope fits perfectly into antibodies on a patient’s mast cells, a kind of white blood cell.
“It’s like a hand in a glove,” says Andrej Petrov, an allergist at UPMC.