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Scientists Search for Allergy-Free Peanut

According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, most severe food allergic reactions come from nuts, primarily peanuts. And because of that researchers are trying to develop an allergy- free peanut. VOA's Paul Sisco reports on promising new research.

Jill Mindlin's six-year-old daughter, Maya, has severe food allergies. "Being a parent of a kid with as many allergies as Maya has is very stressful and adds another layer to everything we do that other people just don't experience," says Jill.

Peanut and nut allergies are not the most common, but the most severe of all food allergies. For reasons unknown, the allergy has been rapidly increasing in children, particularly in the industrialized world.

Allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer wonders about the causes, "Is it because children are getting peanuts earlier in their diet, maybe later in their diet? Maybe it is mothers eating peanuts during pregnancy and breast feeding, or maybe it's just something about our current environment."

Researcher Mohamed Ahmedna at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University believes he has found a way to eliminate allergens from peanuts after harvesting. "The farmer can go on and produce whatever they produce now. We remove the allergens through processing rather than through breeding of the peanut itself."

Initial reports are positive but the processed peanuts have not been tested on humans.

At the University of Florida, food researcher Maria Gallo is trying to grow peanuts without the proteins that trigger most allergic reactions. "If we could disarm or eliminate these proteins then we would reduce the number of people who are allergic to peanuts significantly."

Finally, at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, a different approach to the problems presented by peanut allergies. Dr. Wesley Burks, M.D., says, "What we are doing is counterintuitive, we are always asking them not to ingest this."

Dr. Burks is actually giving small, increasing amounts of peanut powder to allergic subjects. "Our goals in treatment are the desensitization, to make them less sensitive and also to make their peanut allergy go away. What we're seeing is that they really are less sensitive to peanuts. They accidentally have a bite of something with peanuts in it and they're not reacting."

Other food allergies to milk and egg are more common, but not as severe. But in the United States alone, where there are an estimated 125 food allergy deaths a year, most are blamed on peanuts.