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The term atopy implies a tendency to manifest asthma, rhinitis, urticaria, and atopic dermatitis alone or in combination, in association with the presence of allergen-specific IgE. However, individuals without an atopic background may also develop hypersensitivity reactions, particularly urticaria and anaphylaxis, associated with the presence of IgE. Since mast cells are key effector cells in allergic rhinitis and asthma, and the dominant effector in urticaria, anaphylaxis, and systemic mastocytosis, its developmental biology, activation pathway, product profile, and target tissues will be considered in the introduction to these clinical disorders. Dysregulation of mast cell development seen in mastocytosis will be covered in a separate chapter.

The binding of IgE to human mast cells and basophils, a process termed sensitization, prepares these cells for subsequent antigen-specific activation. The high-affinity Fc receptor for IgE, designated FcεRI, is composed of one α, one β, and two disulfide-linked γ chains, which together cross the plasma membrane seven times. The α chain is responsible for IgE binding, and the β and γ chains provide for signal transduction that follows the aggregation of the sensitized tetrameric receptors by polymeric antigen. The binding of IgE stabilizes the α chain at the plasma membrane, thus increasing the density of FcεRI receptors at the cell surface while sensitizing the cell for effector responses. This accounts for the correlation between serum IgE levels and the numbers of FcεRI receptors detected on circulating basophils. Signal transduction is initiated through the action of a Src family–related tyrosine kinase termed Lyn that is constitutively associated with the β chain. Lyn transphosphorylates the canonical immunoreceptor tyrosine-based activation motifs (ITAMs) of the β and γ chains of the receptor, resulting in recruitment of more active Lyn to the β chain and of Syk tyrosine kinase. The phosphorylated tyrosines in the ITAMs function as binding sites for the tandem src homology two (SH2) domains within Syk. Syk activates not only phospholipase Cγ, which associates with the linker of activated T cells at the plasma membrane, but also phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase to provide phosphatidylinositol-3,4,5-trisphosphate, which allows membrane targeting of the Tec family kinase Btk and its activation by Lyn. In addition, the Src family tyrosine kinase Fyn becomes activated after aggregation of IgE receptors and phosphorylates the adapter protein Gab2 that enhances activation of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase. Indeed, this additional input is essential for mast cell activation, but it can be partially inhibited by Lyn, indicating that the extent of mast cell activation is in part regulated by the interplay between these Src family kinases. Activated phospholipase Cγ cleaves phospholipid membrane substrates to provide inositol-1,4,5-trisphosphate (IP3) and 1,2-diacylglycerols (1,2-DAGs) so as to mobilize intracellular calcium and activate protein kinase C, respectively. The subsequent opening of calcium-regulated activated channels provides the sustained elevations of intracellular calcium required to recruit the mitogen-activated protein kinases, ERK, JNK, and p38 (serine/threonine kinases), which provide cascades to augment arachidonic acid release and to mediate nuclear translocation of transcription factors for various cytokines. The calcium ion–dependent activation ...

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