Peanut Allergy? A Cure May Be on the Way

February 28, 2010


(Getty Images)
By Amanda Gardner

SUNDAY, Feb. 28 ( — If your children are allergic to peanuts, you may not have to live—and eat—in fear much longer. Gradually building up a tolerance to peanuts and other foods may prevent dangerous allergic reactions, new research suggests.

Eating very small amounts of peanuts over a long period of time can desensitize children to the nuts, lessening the risk of a life-threatening emergency, according to a pair of studies presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in New Orleans.

Don’t try this at home, however. Even small amounts of peanut products can be fatal for some people, so the desensitization process is too risky to be done without a doctor’s supervision. Roughly 1.5 million people in the United States are allergic to peanuts, and as many as 100 die each year after ingesting the nuts and going into shock.

The good news is that, according to a third study presented at the meeting, the same technique could be used for another common problem, egg allergy.

Although the study results are promising, the treatment isn’t ready for widespread use, and it’s unclear how soon that will be, experts say.

“It gives us hope that in another few years we’ll have a treatment that can go into the clinic,” says Wesley Burks, MD, the chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C., who was involved in all three studies. “But we’re not there yet.”

The treatment, known as oral immunotherapy, exposes an allergic child to increasing amounts of peanuts or egg over a period of years. “You’re fooling the body into accepting amounts of the substance without reacting,” explains Amal H. Assa’ad, MD, the director of the food allergy clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

The ultimate goal of any treatment would be to achieve tolerance, the point at which the body permanently stops reacting to the food, Dr. Assa’ad says.

“There’s still a lot to learn,” she adds. “It looks like it might work, but we don’t know if it’s going to work on everybody, and the side effects are plenty.” Potential side effects of immunotherapy include sneezing, itchiness, and nausea, in addition to the risk of anaphylactic shock (a potentially fatal drop in blood pressure) and other serious reactions.

Next page: Study results “impressive”

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