Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina believe they can prevent dangerous allergic reactions to peanuts by exposing children's immune systems to tiny amounts of the food, according to a study published in Nature.
For millions of children around the world, ingesting even one peanut can be life-threatening. For those with an allergy, the nuts can cause anaphylaxis, a serious reaction that comes on rapidly, making it difficult to breath and causing painful skin rashes and severe stomach pains.
Mary Jane Marchisotto, executive director of the New York-based Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), says about one in 13 children suffers from food allergies, with sensitivity to peanuts among the most common.
The reasons are not clear, but Marchisotto says the number of children who are allergic to peanuts is growing.
“There are a number of competing theories out there. One of the most popular ones is the hygiene hypothesis, which states that we live in such a clean environment and it’s so vaccinated, that the immune system doesn’t have anything bad to go against, so it goes against good allergens like proteins in food.”
There are now hundreds of studies around the world looking at ways to treat children who are allergic to peanuts.
The FAI is funding a number of those trials, including one that gives children very small oral doses of peanut protein, under the supervision of a doctor. Absent an allergic reaction, the doses are gradually increased.
Similar to allergy shots for dust and pollen, the therapy is designed to reprogram the young patients’ immune system so peanuts don’t provoke life-threatening reactions.
Marchisotto says the results of the oral immunotherapy trial and other studies have been promising.
“They show that immunotherapy can be safe and effective in 70 to 80 percent of the subjects. And we’re very optimistic about the use of it. But it is still an investigational therapy, that’s why it’s important that we continue to support the studies.”
In the oral desensitization therapy trial, conducted by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina and funded by FAI, children who previously had been allergic to peanuts were able to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after treatment.