A randomized, controlled study of specific
immunotherapy in monosensitized subjects
with seasonal rhinitis: effect on bronchial
hyperresponsiveness, sputum inflammatory markers
and development of asthma symptoms
Nunzio Crimi, Fabrizio Li Gotti, Giuseppe Mangano, Giuseppina Paolino, Claudio Mastruzzo,
Carlo Vancheri, Natalina Lisitano, Riccardo Polosa
ways7-10. There is evidence that BHR may help to iden-
tify subjects with rhinitis who are at risk for asthma pro-
gression11-13. In addition, a number of epidemiological sur-
veys suggest that allergic rhinitis may prelude to airway
symptoms related to asthma3,14,15.
Allergen-specific immunotherapy (SIT) is a widely
used form of therapy for allergic conditions16. Although
the evidence of its effectiveness in asthma remains con-
troversial17, its efficacy in reducing the severity of symp-
toms related to allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is well estab-
lished16,18. Grass pollen immunotherapy improves symp-
toms and reduces medication requirements in subjects
with severe seasonal allergic rhinitis and results in long-
Istituto di Malattie dell’Apparato Respiratorio (Direttore: Prof.
Giuseppe U. Di Maria), Università degli Studi di Catania
© 2004 CEPI Srl
Allergic rhinitis is often associated with bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR) and airway inflam-
mation, and it seems to be an important risk factor for the development of asthma. Specific
immunotherapy (SIT) reduces symptoms and medication requirements in subjects with allergic
rhinitis, but the mechanisms by which SIT promotes these beneficial effects are less clear.
We have investigated the effects of Parietaria-SIT on rhinitis symptoms, BHR to inhaled metha-
choline, eosinophilic inflammation and cytokine production (interferon γ γand interleukin-4) in the
sputum. The effect on asthma progression was also examined.
Thirty non-asthmatic subjects with seasonal rhinitis and monosensitized to Parietaria judaica par-
ticipated in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel group study. Participants
were randomly assigned to receive injections of a Parietaria pollen vaccine (n = 15) or matched
placebo injections (n = 15) in a rapid updosing cluster regimen for 7 weeks, followed by month-
ly injections for 34 months. Throughout the 3-year study we collected data on symptoms and med-
ication score, airway responsiveness to methacholine, eosinophilia and soluble cytokines in spu-
tum, followed by a complete evaluation of the clinical course of atopy.
Hay fever symptom and medication scores were well controlled by SIT. By the end of the study,
in the placebo group, symptom and medication scores significantly increased by a median
(interquartile range) of 121% (15-280%) and 263% (0-4400%) respectively (p < 0.01), whereas
no significant difference was observed in the SIT group. We found no significant changes in the
sputum parameters and methacholine PC15values in both groups throughout the study. By the
end of the investigation, a total of 9 out of 29 participants developed asthma symptoms; of these,
seven (47%) belonged to the placebo group, whereas only 2 (14%) to the SIT-treated group (p =
In conclusion, Parietaria-SIT is effective in controlling hay fever symptoms and rescue medica-
tions, but no changes in the BHR to methacholine or sputum eosinophilia were observed.
Moreover, Parietaria-SIT appears to prevent the natural progression of allergic rhinitis to asth-
ma, suggesting that SIT should be considered earlier in the management of this condition.
(Ann Ital Med Int 2004; 19: 98-108)
Key words: Bronchial hyperresponsiveness; Induced sputum; Parietaria allergy; Seasonal aller-
gic rhinitis; Specific immunotherapy; TH1/TH2balance.
Allergic rhinitis is one of the most common chronic con-
ditions in the industrialized world and is often associated
with several comorbidities that include allergic conjunc-
tivitis, sinus disease, otitis media, and asthma1-3. In a pro-
portion of allergic individuals with rhinitis, a bronchial
challenge with histamine or methacholine may reveal
bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR) even in the absence
of any asthmatic symptoms4-6and this may be a reflection
of subclinical inflammatory changes in the lower air-
Nunzio Crimi et al.
term clinical benefit for at least 3 years after discontinu-
ation of treatment18,19. It is also possible that when given
prophylactically to susceptible individuals, SIT may be
effective in preventing progression to asthma rather than
reversing its course once the disease is established20,21. The
reasons for these beneficial effects are not known, but one
explanation rests on the potential of SIT to attenuate BHR
and airway inflammation.
The association between TH2-type cytokine production and
an allergic phenotype on the one hand, and TH1-type cytokine
production with non-atopic “protective” responses on the
other is well established22-24. It is therefore plausible that SIT
may modify the T-cell response to subsequent natural aller-
gen exposure by shifting the balance of T-cell subsets away
from TH2-type (producing particularly interleukin-IL-4 and
IL-5) in favor of a TH1-type response (with preferential
production of interferon-IFNγ)25. Such a deviation in the T-
cell effector phenotype may also be expected to account for
the inhibition of cytokine-mediated eosinophil recruitment,
activation, and persistence in tissues.
We have conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled
3-year study of SIT in non-asthmatic subjects with rhini-
tis monosensitized to Parietaria pollen with documented
seasonal increases in non-specific BHR and sputum
eosinophils during the pollen season. Subjects allergic to
Parietariawere selected, as it appears to be the major cause
of respiratory allergy in the Mediterranean area and par-
ticularly in Sicily where the study was carried out26.
Outcome measures included seasonal symptoms, use of
rescue medication, bronchial responsiveness to metha-
choline, eosinophilic airway inflammation in sputum, and
TH1(IFNγ) and TH2(IL-4) cytokine levels in the fluid phase
of sputum. The possible progression of allergic rhinitis to
asthma in both treatment groups was also assessed.
The present study was a parallel group, double-blind,
placebo-controlled trial lasting for a period of 3 years
(December 1997-December 2000) during which we inves-
tigated the effects of SIT with high-dose standardized
Parietaria judaicaextract on: 1) symptom and medication
score; 2) airway methacholine responsiveness; 3) eosino-
philia and soluble cytokines in sputum, and 4) the clini-
cal course of atopy, in a group of patients with rhinitis who
were allergic to Parietaria (Fig. 1). The local Ethics
Committee approved the study, and written informed
consent was obtained from each subject.
Upon enrolment (December 1997, out of Parietaria
season), a detailed history of each subject was taken and
physical examination, spirometry, and bronchial chal-
lenges with methacholine were carried out. Sputum induc-
tion was performed at least 1 week later. Subjects were ran-
domized to receive either active treatment, consisting of
increasing doses of allergen extract given subcutaneous-
ly, followed by monthly maintenance treatment, or place-
bo. The randomization sequence was generated by the sup-
plier of the Parietariapollen vaccine (ALK-Abellò, Milan,
FIGURE 1. Patient flow-chart illustrating the timing of assessments. One patient in
the specific immunotherapy (SIT) group was lost to follow-up due to a change in res-
Ann Ital Med Int Vol 19, N 2 Aprile-Giugno 2004
Italy) using a random number generator. The treatment
schedule and assessments were performed in a double-blind
manner, with treatment allocations kept in sealed envelopes
by the principal investigator. From March to July 1998,
1999, and 2000 the participants recorded their daily symp-
toms and rescue medications on diary cards. Bronchial
challenges with methacholine and sputum induction were
repeated during the peak of the Parietaria season in 1998,
1999 and 2000. Relief medications for symptoms of rhini-
tis were withheld for at least 3 days before each study visit.
Thirty non-smoking subjects (15 females and 15 males,
mean age 33 years, age range 20-54 years) with a docu-
mented history of seasonal allergic rhinitis were recruit-
ed from the Allergy Clinic of our Institution (Table I).
These subjects were selected on the basis of positive skin
prick tests (wheal > 3 mm) to Parietaria judaica and
negative tests to a panel of 21 common aeroallergens
(including Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus, Dermato-
phagoides farinae, grass, trees, dog fur, cat fur, Olea
europea, Aspergillus fumigatus). Exclusion criteria were
a past or present history of asthma, previous asthma symp-
toms or asthma medication intake, and/or abnormal spiro-
metric values. Since excluding the diagnosis of asthma was
an important component of our study, we opted for
extremely rigorous exclusion criteria for asthma, which was
defined as at least 2 reported episodes of breathlessness,
cough, and wheeze within the past 12 months. The pos-
sibility of unrecognized asthma in the participants of our
study was categorically excluded by further reviewing
their case histories and subjects were eligible for inclusion
in the study if at least two specialists in allergic diseases
agreed that they did not have any clinical history or symp-
toms suggestive of asthma. None of the subjects studied
had ever received SIT. During the course of the study, sub-
jects seeking symptomatic relief were allowed only
oxymetazoline spray and/or 10 mg loratadine tablets.
Throughout the study, subjects were requested not to take
nasal and oral corticosteroids.
Study outcome variables
Assessment of disease activity. A daily record of aller-
gic symptoms and use of relief medications was kept
throughout each Parietariapollen season (March-July) for
3 consecutive years (1998-2000). Nasal/conjunctival
symptoms were scored on a scale of 0 to 3 (0 = no symp-
toms; 1 = mild; 2 = moderate; 3 = severe) for 5 different
items (sneeze, blockage, itch, running and eye stream-
ing/itching) and totaled daily. Lower respiratory symptoms
(breathlessness, cough, wheeze) were also recorded and
scored on a scale of 0 to 1 (0 = absent; 1 = present).
Asthma was defined as the recurrence of at least 2 of the
following 3 symptoms: breathlessness, cough, and wheeze.
Daily medication scores were totaled for the allowed res-
cue treatments: each actuation (? 2 nostrils) of oxymeta-
zoline and each inhalation (2 puffs) of salbutamol was
scored 1; each 10-mg loratadine tablet was scored 2.
During the course of the study, the subjects were request-
ed not to take nasal and oral corticosteroids. In order to
maintain the blindness of the study protocol, the physicians
who consulted the participants were not involved in the
Measurement of airway responsiveness. The forced
expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), and forced vital
capacity were measured with a computerized spirometer
(Cosmed Altair Vega Hercules Delta III, Cosmed Srl,
Pavona di Albano, Rome, Italy) and the results were
expressed as percent of predicted.
BHR was evaluated by methacholine bronchial chal-
lenge, as described previously27. In brief, methacholine
(Lofarma, Milan, Italy) was dissolved in phosphate-
buffered saline (pH 7.4) to produce increasing doubling
concentrations (0.125-16 mg/mL) and immediately used
for bronchial challenge. The solutions were administered
as aerosols generated from a starting volume of 3 mL in
a disposable Inspiron Minineb (C.R. Bard International,
Sunderland, UK) driven by compressed air at 8 L/min.
Subjects inhaled the aerosolized solutions in five breaths
from the functional residual capacity to total lung capac-
ity via a mouthpiece. Subjects were trained to reach the
total lung capacity in 3 s. After five breaths of diluent solu-
TABLE I. Clinical characteristics of participants.
(n = 15)
(n = 15)
Duration of rhinitis (years)
symptoms scores 1998*
Eosinophils in sputum (%)
140 (80-240)133 (78-176)
12 (6-47)18 (0-58)
Median values are given for scores and percentage eosinophils; inter-
quartile range in parentheses. Mean values are given for age; range in
SIT = specific immunotherapy.
* scores derived at the peak of the Parietaria pollen season 1998 and
expressed as the area under the curve; †PC15methacholine < 16 mg/mL.
Nunzio Crimi et al.
tion, subjects inhaled increasing doubling concentrations
of agonist. The FEV1was measured at 1 and 3 min after
administration of each concentration of agonist and the bet-
ter of the two values recorded for analysis. The chal-
lenges were stopped when a 15% decrease in the FEV1had
been achieved or when the maximum concentration of ago-
nist had been inhaled. The bronchial responses to the
inhaled agonists were expressed as the provocative con-
centration causing a 15% decline in the FEV1(PC15)
which was calculated by linear interpolation from the
concentration-response curve constructed on a logarithmic
scale by plotting the percentage change in the FEV1from
the post-diluent value against the cumulative concentra-
tion of agonist administered.
Sputum induction and processing. Induction was per-
formed according to our previously published method10,28.
Briefly, participants inhaled hypertonic saline (4.5%)
aerosolized by an ultrasonic nebulizer (UltraNeb 99,
DeVilbiss, Feltham, Middlesex, UK) with the output set
at 3 mL/min. The subjects wore a nose clip and quietly
inhaled the aerosol for up to five consecutive 5-min peri-
ods until an adequate volume of sputum was collected.
The sputum plugs were transferred into 50 mL poly-
propylene tubes (Becton Dickinson, Abingdon, UK),
weighed, and an equal weight of 0.01 M dithioerythritol
(Fluka, Gillingham, Dorset, UK) solution added to dissolve
the mucus. Specimens were then vortexed for 10 s, rocked
for 30 min at room temperature, and again vortexed for
another 10 s. They were then filtered through a 70-µm
strainer (Becton Dickinson) and the collected fluid cen-
trifuged at 400 g for 10 min at 4°C. The supernatants
were removed and stored at -70°C. The cell pellets were
resuspended in 1 mL of phosphate-buffered saline with-
out Ca2+and Mg2+and viable cells counted in a hemo-
cytometer. Only samples in which squamous cells com-
prised < 30% of the total cells were considered satisfac-
tory for analysis. Differential counting was carried out
using cytospins stained with May-Grunwald-Giemsa on
600 cells (excluding squamous cells). Slides were coded
and examined by one investigator and counts expressed
as a percentage of the total number of cells and as absolute
counts. IL-4 and IFNγ levels were measured in duplicate
using commercially available ELISA kits (Bender Med
Systems, Vienna, Austria) with a sensitivity of 10 and 1.5
A standardized extract of Parietaria judaica, aluminum
adsorbed for slow release (Alutard SQ, ALK-Abellò),
was used as SIT. The placebo injections were identical and
contained 0.01 mg/mL of histamine acid phosphate in
allergen diluent (phosphate-buffered saline). Both prepa-
rations were administered by physicians who were not
involved in the acquisition or analysis of either the clin-
ical or physiologic data of the study. The same physicians
were also responsible for the observation and treatment of
any adverse reactions.
A modified “cluster” regimen of injections was given
between December 1997 and February 1998 (Table II), fol-
lowed by monthly maintenance injections until December
2000 which were adjusted in accordance with the published
guidelines. In most of the participants, a maintenance
dose of 80 000 standard quality units was achieved. Each
0.8-mL maintenance injection of 80 000 standard quali-
ty units was equivalent to 8000 biologic units and contained
4.8 µg of the major allergen Par J1. Local cutaneous
reactions at the injection site and any other symptoms
occurring within 30 min were documented. Subjects
recorded any delayed (within 48 hours) local or general-
A Burkard 7-day volumetric spore trap (Burkard,
Rickmansworth, UK) placed on the exposed roof of our
Institute was used to collect pollen grains. Parietaria pol-
lens were measured daily and expressed as grains per
cubic meter of air. Weekly average counts were calculat-
ed for the whole duration of the study. In 1998 and 2000,
weekly Parietaria pollen counts in Catania peaked in
March and May in the average range. The pollen counts
for Parietaria were comparable in 1998 and 2000, but the
TABLE II. Cluster specific immunotherapy updosing schedule.
Vial no.Injection no. DayHour Volume
I (100 USQ/mL)1
II (1000 USQ/mL)3
III (10 000 USQ/mL)5
IV (100 000 USQ/mL)
UQS = standard quality units.
Injections were given at 1-hour intervals and patients were kept under
observation for 40 min after the last injection of each cluster. Monthly
maintenance injections were administered for a further 34 months with
a 50% dose reduction during the Parietaria pollen season.
Ann Ital Med Int Vol 19, N 2 Aprile-Giugno 2004
area under the curve (AUC) showed a slightly higher
(11.8%) value in 2000.
Symptom and medication scores were summed up for the
8 weeks corresponding to the peak pollen counts each
year and expressed as AUC. The AUC data and all the vari-
ables in the sputum, which were not normally distributed,
were expressed as medians (interquartile ranges). PC15
values were logarithmically transformed to normalize their
distribution and expressed as geometric mean (range).
For all the non-parametric data (AUC values and spu-
tum variables), differences between groups over the 1998-
2000 Parietaria pollen seasons were compared using
Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance followed
by the Mann-Whitney U test, whereas within groups com-
parisons were analyzed using Friedman’s test followed by
Wilcoxon’s matched-pairs signed rank test where appro-
priate. Logarithmically transformed data (PC15 values)
were analyzed using two-way analysis of variance
(ANOVA) followed by the paired Student’s t-test. Bon-
ferroni’s correction was applied to allow for multiple
comparisons. The Spearman’s correlation test was used to
analyze the relationship between different variables. The
Fisher’s exact test was used to compare the frequency of
development of asthma in the two study groups.
The relationships between asthma progression and PC15
values or percent sputum eosinophils at the beginning of
the study were analyzed using the independent samples t-
test. Binary logistic regressions were performed to eval-
uate whether PC15values and percent sputum eosinophils
could forecast the beneficial effects of SIT. The odds
ratio calculated from the logistic regression was used to
assess the probability of preventing asthma progression in
the SIT and placebo groups.
A two-tailed p value of < 0.05 was considered as sta-
tistically significant. All analyses were performed using
the Statistical Package for Social Science (SPSS, Chicago,
IL, USA) for Windows version 10.0.
Twenty-nine of the 30 participants completed the 3-year
study period (Fig. 1). One patient who was receiving SIT
was lost to follow-up in the last year of the study because
of a change in residence. The clinical characteristics of the
participants are summarized in Table I. The patient groups
were comparable with respect to age, airway responsive-
ness to methacholine, severity of symptoms and sputum
Safety of Parietaria specific immunotherapy
The treatment was well tolerated, and no systemic reac-
tions occurred throughout the study. No immediate or
late systemic reactions were observed during either the
induction or maintenance phase of treatment. Twelve
delayed mild local reactions (wheal > 5 cm) were docu-
mented during the induction period, 9 in the actively
treated group and 3 in the placebo-treated group. During
maintenance treatment there were 3 delayed large local
reactions (wheal > 10 cm) in the SIT-treated group and
none in the placebo group. The reactions required no
treatment, and all subjects continued in the study without
Effects of specific immunotherapy on symptom and
medication scores and on asthma progression
By the third year of the study, a significant difference
between the symptom scores of the groups was observed;
the median (interquartile range) symptom score of 310
(198-387) in the placebo group was 145 (55-210) in the
SIT group (p = 0.001) (Fig. 2). Comparison of the 1998
data with those of the year 2000, showed a significant
change in overall median symptom scores by 121% (15-
280%) in the placebo group and by -16% (-64 to 37%) in
the SIT group (p = 0.001).
Similarly, a significant difference in medication scores
was observed between the two groups, the greatest effect
being observed by the third year of the study. The medi-
an (interquartile ranges) medication scores were signifi-
cantly lower in the SIT group than in the placebo group;
4 (0-110) vs 58 (16-116) in 1999 (p = 0.041; SIT vs
placebo) and 5 (0-49) vs 78 (45-120) in 2000 (p = 0.002;
SIT vs placebo) (Fig. 3). From 1998 to 2000, medication
requirements decreased by 59% (-90 to 340%) in the SIT
group and increased by 263% (0-4400%) in the placebo
group (p = 0.001).
The time-dependent progression of asthmatic symp-
toms and of anti-asthma medication scores was apparent
in subjects with seasonal allergic rhinitis. By the end of
the investigation, a total of 9 out of 29 participants devel-
oped symptoms compatible with the diagnosis of asthma;
of these, 7 (47%) belonged to the placebo group, where-
as only 2 (14%) to the SIT group (p = 0.056).
Effects of specific immunotherapy on methacholine
Between-group comparisons throughout the study
showed no significant difference in PC15methacholine,
their geometric mean (range) values being 5.21 (1.03-16)
vs 6.36 (0.26-16) mg/mL (p = 0.705; placebo vs SIT,
1998), 3.86 (0.23-16) vs 8.01 (1.02-16) mg/mL (p = 0.759;
Nunzio Crimi et al.
placebo vs SIT, 1999), and 5.64 (1.12-16) vs 6.89 (0.16-
16) mg/mL (p = 0.604; placebo vs SIT, 2000) (Fig. 4).
Similarly, no significant changes in PC15methacholine val-
ues were observed within the placebo and the SIT group.
Effects of specific immunotherapy on sputum eosinophils
and on interferon γ/interleukin-4 concentrations
We obtained sputum samples on all but six occasions
(three on 1999 and three on 2000). Complete data on the
IFNγ and IL-4 concentrations in the sputum were avail-
able for 22 subjects (11 in the SIT group and 11 in the
Between-group comparisons throughout the study showed
no significant difference in percentage eosinophil counts,
their median (interquartile range) values being 10.5% (3-
30%) vs 12.0% (3.5-26%) (p = 0.917; placebo vs SIT,
1998), 10.0% (3.5-30%) vs 10.8% (1-63%) (p = 0.819;
placebo vs SIT, 1999), and 17.0% (4.9-30.1%) vs 7.8% (1.8-
46.5%) (p = 0.402; placebo vs SIT, 2000) (Fig. 5).
Further analyses revealed that sputum eosinophil (p =
0.014) but not methacholine PC15(p = 0.108) values at the
beginning of the study are good predictors of subsequent
FIGURE 2. Changes in the median (±interquartile range) symptom scores in the spe-
cific immunotherapy (SIT) (closed squares) and placebo-treated (open squares)
groups at the peak of the Parietaria season in 1998, 1999, and 2000. A significant
difference (p = 0.001) was observed by the third year of treatment.
FIGURE3. Changes in the median (±interquartile range) medication scores in the spe-
cific immunotherapy (SIT) (closed squares) and placebo-treated (open squares) groups
at the peak of the Parietaria season in 1998, 1999, and 2000. A significant difference
was observed in the second (p = 0.041) and third years (p = 0.002) of treatment.
Ann Ital Med Int Vol 19, N 2 Aprile-Giugno 2004
Sputum IFNγ and IL-4 concentrations between groups
did not change significantly throughout the study period.
By the end of the study, the mean (±SEM) concentrations
of sputum IFNγ and IL-4 were 7.6 ±4.7 and 140.3 ±31.9
pg/mL in the placebo group and 13.7 ± 5.3 and 137.6 ±
26.3 pg/mL in SIT subjects.
We did not find any correlation between sputum
eosinophils and methacholine PC15(r = -0.29, p = 0.116).
We found no significant correlation between IFN or IL-4
concentrations in the sputum and neither the percentage
eosinophils count nor the PC15values at any time point of
The primary objective of this study was not to evaluate
the clinical efficacy of SIT in allergic rhinitis, since this
issue had already been addressed in other similar trials, but
FIGURE 4. Individual methacholine PC15values in the specific immunotherapy (SIT)
(closed circles) and placebo-treated (open circles) groups at the peak of the Parietaria
season in 1998, 1999, and 2000. No significant between-group difference was
observed in any phase of the study. The geometric mean values are shown as hori-
zontal bars. Negative methacholine responders are represented in the shaded area.
FIGURE5. Changes in the median (±interquartile range) percentage eosinophil counts
in the specific immunotherapy (SIT) (gray bars) and placebo-treated (white bars)
groups at the peak of the Parietaria season in 1998, 1999, and 2000. No significant
between-group difference was observed in any phase of the study. Medians are shown
as horizontal bars.
Nunzio Crimi et al.
to monitor the SIT-induced changes of the well-known sur-
rogates of airway inflammation and of TH1/TH2cell bal-
ance. This was accomplished by prospectively following
airways responsiveness to inhaled methacholine, sputum
eosinophilia, and IL-4 and IFNγ production in the sputum
of subjects receiving SIT with Parietariaallergen extracts.
The restriction of the inclusion criteria to subjects who were
sensitized to only one allergen (Parietaria judaica) is
critical to the whole investigation because it provides a
clean immunological model where to test our hypotheses.
Moreover, we sought evidence for the prevention of asth-
ma progression, and for this reason we selected only non-
asthmatic subjects with rhinitis.
To improve acceptability for both subjects and medical
staff, we adopted a rapid updosing cluster injection pro-
tocol. This regimen was well tolerated, with all subjects
reaching the intended maintenance dose within the planned
7 weeks. Although a number of mild and a few severe local
reactions occurred, no systemic symptoms occurred dur-
ing any phase of the study. We conclude that the modified
cluster protocol was associated with minimal side effects
and good compliance.
The results of the present study demonstrate that SIT is
effective in controlling symptom and medication scores
in allergic rhinitis subjects sensitized to Parietaria pollen.
In the present study, the differences in symptom and med-
ication scores between SIT and placebo-treated subjects
were greater in 2000 than in 1999. This is likely to be a
reflection of the longer duration of SIT which may have
contributed to the larger differences observed between the
groups after 3 years of treatment. The improvement in clin-
ical symptom and medication scores was not associated
with a decline in bronchial responsiveness to metha-
choline or with modifications in eosinophilic airway
inflammation and IFNγand IL-4 concentrations in the spu-
tum. However, our data indicate that in subjects with sea-
sonal allergic rhinitis who do not have any symptoms of
asthma, SIT may prevent progression to asthma.
The evidence of the present study that SIT is beneficial
in preventing the severity of the airway symptoms relat-
ed to seasonal allergy due to Parietaria pollen is not
novel as it has been already shown in previous random-
ized controlled trials29-31. Perhaps the most interesting
finding in the present study is that non-asthmatic subjects
with seasonal allergic rhinitis progress to bronchial asth-
ma and that SIT is likely to prevent the natural course of
the disease. Although this effect of SIT was not signifi-
cant (p = 0.056), a trend was clearly apparent with 47%
of patients in the placebo group developing asthma symp-
toms by the end of the study, as opposed to only 14% of
those in the SIT group. These findings support the evidence
that the use of immunotherapy in non-asthmatic individ-
uals with rhinitis may reduce the occurrence of asth-
ma21,32,33. Moreover, in a recent retrospective survey of 371
consecutive non-asthmatic subjects with allergic rhinitis,
we have reported that patients receiving immunotherapy
have a 40% lower chance of developing asthma com-
pared to untreated patients34. It is unclear why a large pro-
portion of individuals with atopy and rhinitis eventually
progress to bronchial asthma. Although atopy per se car-
ries an increased risk for the subsequent development of
asthma in individuals with rhinitis, it is likely that chron-
ic exposure to airborne allergens is important. The
Parietaria pollen is widespread in the Mediterranean area
with a very high frequency of sensitization (up to 80% in
Sicily) and its long persistence in the atmosphere (in
Sicily the Parietaria pollen season lasts from February to
October) is often responsible for the almost perennial
symptoms26. As in previous studies with non-asthmatic
subjects with allergic rhinitis9,10, we have observed a sub-
stantial number of sputum eosinophils and an elevated
BHR during periods of seasonal exposure to Parietaria
pollen, which is known to reflect active allergic inflam-
mation of the airways35. Therefore ongoing exposure to
Parietaria pollen may give rise to inflammatory changes
in the bronchial airways of subjects with allergic rhinitis
that may progress to asthma.
The reasons for the progressive worsening over the
years of the study are not known, but may be related to the
specific characteristics of the inhalant allergen type. In con-
trast to mite allergens, Parietaria pollen has very strong
allergenic properties and reaches very high peak levels dur-
ing season. Moreover, in a recent retrospective survey of
371 consecutive non-asthmatic subjects with allergic
rhinitis34, multivariate analysis demonstrated that sensi-
tization to Parietaria is a significant independent risk
factor for the worsening and progression of upper and
lower airways symptoms.
The observed lack of effect of Parietaria-SIT against
methacholine responsiveness of the airways confirms ear-
lier findings by D’Amato et al.36, who also failed to detect
a significant effect of Parietaria-SIT with regard to non-
specific BHR in subjects with seasonal asthma and rhini-
tis. However, our results are somewhat at variance with
previous studies on mite and grass pollen allergy33,37,38.
The reasons for this discrepant effect of SIT on BHR are
not quite clear, but are probably related to the character-
istics of the inhalant allergen type. In contrast to mite
allergens, Parietaria pollen, which has very strong aller-
genic properties, often reaches very high peak levels dur-
ing season26. Therefore, Parietaria-sensitive subjects are
likely to be exposed to very high allergen levels, and this
Ann Ital Med Int Vol 19, N 2 Aprile-Giugno 2004
high allergenic load may counterbalance the protective
effect of SIT against the airways responsiveness to metha-
choline and sputum eosinophilia.
We also failed to detect a significant effect of Parietaria-
SIT against sputum eosinophil counts. These findings are
somewhat at variance with previous data on asthmatic sub-
jects who are allergic to mite and birch pollen showing that
immunotherapy may reduce the percentage of total and
EG2+ eosinophils and the eosinophil cationic protein
concentration in bronchoalveolar lavage and induced spu-
tum39,40. However, earlier findings by D’Amato et al.36
demonstrate that there was no significant effect of
Parietaria-SIT with regard to eosinophil cationic protein
values in subjects with mild asthma and rhinitis. In addi-
tion, when sublingual immunotherapy to Parietariapollen
was administered to subjects with seasonal rhinocon-
junctivitis, between-group comparisons failed to demon-
strate a significant reduction of the eosinophilic infiltrate
in the nasal brushings41. The rationale for the conflicting
effects of SIT on sputum eosinophil counts remains
unclear, but, as discussed before, is likely to be related to
the peculiar characteristics of the Parietaria pollen sea-
son in the Mediterranean coastal areas.
One way of exploring the mechanisms of the beneficial
effects of immunotherapy is to test the hypothesis that SIT
elicits an immunologic shift in the balance of T-cell sub-
sets away from the TH2-type with a distinctive pattern in
cytokine production. The effect of SIT against sputum IFNγ
and IL-4 concentrations has never been addressed. In the
present study, we failed to demonstrate that SIT converts
the TH2pattern of cytokine into a predominantly TH1
cytokine profile in treated subjects, since in no phase of
the study did between-group comparisons show any sig-
nificant difference. The shift from TH2to TH1, induced after
immunotherapy treatment in atopic patients, has been
proposed as one of the possible mechanisms through
which SIT effectively operates25. Work on stimulated
allergen specific CD4+ T cells and peripheral blood
mononuclear cells in cultures suggest that immunothera-
py affects the TH1/TH2balance either by a decrease in
TH2cytokines (e.g. IL-4), or via an increase in TH1
cytokines (e.g. IFNγ)42-44. However, data regarding IFNγ
production are conflicting45. Others have reported on a
more complex pattern whereby some patients have an
increased and others have a decreased level of serum IL-
4 after SIT46, or that both TH1and TH2cytokines are sup-
pressed47. It is not clear why in the present study sputum
IFNγ and IL-4 concentrations did not respond to
Parietaria-SIT. Indeed, when compared to other inhalant
allergens (e.g. house dust mite), a marked heterogeneity
in terms of the functional TH1/TH2responses has been
described in patients allergic to Parietaria48. Alternatively,
the failure of SIT may be secondary to suppression of IL-
12 production49or it may be due to a failure of immuno-
therapy to promote the expansion of regulatory T cells pro-
ducing transforming growth factor-β50,51.
We conclude that Parietaria pollen injection immuno-
therapy followed by 3 years of maintenance treatment
effectively controls hay fever symptoms and rescue med-
ications. However, no changes in BHR to methacholine
or sputum eosinophilia were observed. We have also
shown that subjects with seasonal allergic rhinitis progress
to bronchial asthma and that Parietaria-SIT is likely to
slow down the natural course of the disease. Although larg-
er studies are needed to confirm our observations and to
define the characteristics of the patients who would ben-
efit most from such a therapeutic approach, our findings
indicate that SIT should be considered earlier in the treat-
ment of rhinitis in order to prevent progression to more
advanced and irreversible type of allergic diseases such as
La rinite allergica è spesso associata ad iperreattività
bronchiale (BHR) e flogosi delle vie aeree, pertanto po-
trebbe rappresentare un importante fattore di rischio per
lo sviluppo di asma bronchiale. L’immunoterapia speci-
fica (SIT) migliora la sintomatologia e riduce l’uso di
farmaci nei soggetti con rinite allergica anche se il mec-
canismo con cui ciò si verifica non è del tutto chiaro.
Abbiamo studiato gli effetti della SIT alla Parietarianei
confronti dei sintomi della rinite, BHR dopo stimolo con
metacolina, flogosi eosinofila e rilascio di citochine (in-
terferone γ e interleuchina-4) nello sputo indotto. Inoltre
sono stati esaminati gli effetti sull’eventuale progressio-
ne verso asma bronchiale.
Trenta soggetti non asmatici, monosensibilizzati alla
Parietaria judaica, affetti da rinite stagionale sono stati
arruolati in uno studio randomizzato in doppio cieco e con-
trollato con placebo. A questi soggetti veniva sommini-
strata secondo un procedimento randomizzato una dose di
vaccino con allergene della Parietaria (n = 15) o place-
bo (n = 15) con modalità di somministrazione rapida
(completa in 7 settimane), seguita da somministrazioni
mensili per i successivi 34 mesi. Nel corso dei 3 anni del-
lo studio, abbiamo raccolto dati sui sintomi e l’impiego del-
la terapia medica, BHR alla metacolina, presenza di eo-
sinofili e citochine solubili nello sputo indotto e l’evolu-
zione clinica dell’atopia.
La SIT ha permesso un buon controllo della sintoma-
tologia con una riduzione dell’impiego di farmaci. A
completamento dello studio, nel gruppo di controllo (pla-
Nunzio Crimi et al.
cebo) gli score sintomatologici e di utilizzo dei farmaci mo-
stravano un peggioramento con incremento significativo
del valore di mediana (range interquartile) a 121% (15-
280%) e a 263% (0-4400%) (p < 0.01) rispettivamente,
mentre non si osservavano differenze significative nel
gruppo trattato con SIT.
Inoltre non è stata messa in evidenza alcuna differenza
nelle caratteristiche dell’espettorato e nei valori di PC15
dopo stimolo con metacolina in entrambi i gruppi per tut-
to il periodo dei 3 anni. A completamento dello studio, in
9 dei 29 partecipanti si è evidenziata la presenza di sintomi
di asma bronchiale; di questi, 7 (47%) appartenevano al
gruppo trattato con placebo e solamente 2 (14%) al grup-
po trattato con SIT (p = 0.056).
La SIT alla Parietaria risulta efficace nel controllo dei
sintomi della rinite e nella riduzione dell’impiego di far-
maci. Tuttavia, non è stata osservata alcuna variazione del-
la BHR dopo stimolo con metacolina né sono state evi-
denziate modifiche degli eosinofili nello sputo indotto. La
SIT alla Parietariarisulta anche capace di prevenire la na-
turale progressione della rinite allergica verso l’asma
bronchiale, suggerendone un impiego precoce nella ge-
stione di tale patologia allergica.
Parole chiave: Allergia alla Parietaria; Bilanciamento
TH1/TH2; Immunoterapia specifica; Iperreattività bronchia-
le; Rinite allergica stagionale; Sputo indotto.
We would like to thank ALK-Abellò Italia SpA for
providing the allergen extracts for Parietaria-specific
immunotherapy and Dr. Jonathan Goddard (Department
of Medical Statistics, University of Southampton,
Southampton, UK) for his valuable assistance with the sta-
tistical analysis. We would also like to thank all our
patients for their time and effort.
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Manuscript received on 13.1.2004, accepted on 19.4.2004.
Address for correspondence:
Prof. Riccardo Polosa, Istituto di Malattie dell’Apparato Respiratorio, Università degli Studi, Via Passo Gravina 187, 95125 Catania.