E xcept for the time spent in medical school at the University of Alabama, Memphis has been home to Dr. Gregory Hanissian. The Rhodes College graduate is the first to admit that the Bluff City is probably “the most challenging environment” for his practice, Hanissian Allergy & Asthma, located in Germantown. “The allergic burden here is very high,” he says. “There is so much pollen, lots of mold because of the humidity, and other factors that can make allergy sufferers’ lives just miserable.”
Hanissian started his medical practice in 1996 by joining his father, Dr. Aram Hanissian, a specialist in allergy and rheumatology. When his father retired, the younger Hanissian formed his own group, focusing on allergy and asthma. Hanissian explains that in many cases, the two conditions are related because asthma can be the response of a patient’s lungs to an allergen.
The hardest part of his job, day in and day out, is to find the culprit that’s causing the trouble.
“In allergy or asthma, the immune system is basically misfiring,” he says. “It can be in response to an allergen like pollen or pet dander, or a food such as peanuts or cashews, or even a reaction to medicine.” Skin testing is still the gold standard for determining the most common allergens, and developing a treatment for them, which can involve medication or — whenever possible — simple avoidance. But food allergies are becoming more common, and they can be especially dangerous. Patients allergic to eggs, shrimp, and shellfish can go into anaphylactic shock if not treated promptly.
“Twenty years ago, we might find that only one in four patients had some type of food allergy,” Hanissian says. “Today, it’s almost every patient, and there are all kinds of theories why this is happening. In many cases, it’s because of food additives, not the food itself.”
Drug allergies are particularly risky, especially when the medication is needed to fight infection. So far, penicillin is the only antibiotic with a test that can determine if the patient will have a bad reaction to it.
Hanissian says he is encouraged by current research in the field of allergy. “We are looking at DNA-based vaccines that target a specific patient’s immune system, and effective therapies are on the horizon.” It’s not just a matter of stopping the sniffles. “Even simple allergies can make people feel awful,” he says. “Productivity is affected, because when someone is sick it’s a tremendous drain on the workforce.”