Duke University research proposes cure for peanut allergies

Those allergic to peanuts may have been given a second chance to enjoy treats previous denied to them.

Dr. Wesley Burks, a Duke University pediatric allergist, as well as researchers from the Duke University Medical Center and the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, fed children the equivalent of 1/1000 of a peanut progressively increasing each dose. He said this would allow the children’s immune system to become used to the presence of peanuts in their diet.

In one study, Burks followed nine children and reported about two years later than five of the children were able to consume foods containing higher amounts of peanut concentration.

”This research has potential, but investigators have been appropriately cautious,” said Dr. Bob Schleimer, chief of allergy and immunology at Northwestern Hospital. “The therapy has risks, thus, researchers are warning children to not try it until it’s validated.”

Some people who have never experienced foods containing peanuts are enthusiastic about the therapy.

“I would definitely try this therapy,” said Gwen Groesbeck, senior in LAS who has been allergic to peanuts since birth. “It is a scary thing that being allergic to peanuts is actually a life risk, so anything to reduce that risk would be worth it.”

An estimated three million Americans have an allergy to peanuts, and peanut allergies have been responsible for almost half of the annual 150 deaths related to food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

“Various hypotheses have to do with early life exposure to pathogens, due to improvements in vaccines as well as chemicals that people may encounter in industrialized cultures,” Schleimer said. “Others have theorized about dietary changes, but no one knows for sure, there are many different ideas.”

University biochemistry Professor David Kranz, whose laboratory has done research in immunology, proposed the “hygiene hypothesis”.

“Basically, this hypothesis proposes that the increases in allergies are a result of children in developed countries having much less exposure to infectious agents, due to improvements in hygiene,” Kranz said. “The hypothesis is thus based on the idea that because children have fewer antibodies to these infectious agents, there are more antibodies available to react with allergens.”

Researchers have proposed alternatives to the therapy, including a new vaccine undergoing studies at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Schleimer said. The vaccine would trick immune system into believing that it is consuming peanuts by injecting a fake chemical version of a peanut. Researchers said they hoped this would eventually rid the immune system of its defense against the food.

The vaccine, while possibly a huge step in the fight against the common allergy, has caused concerns within some members of the medical community, he added.

“Food allergy vaccines are especially difficult because allergens with food are less stable and don’t keep well in storage,” Schleimer said. “Allergy shots for food in the past have proven to be almost impossible because they prove to be too much risk of harm, or even death, to the patient.”

Researchers are optimistic that studies done in peanut allergies could possibly lead to cures for other food allergies, such as the seafood allergies which affects an estimated 6.9 million Americans.

“I wouldn’t be inclined to try it (the vaccine), mostly because my allergies aren’t fatal and I’ve gotten used to them,” said John Payne, sophomore in LAS, who has an allergy to eggs, raspberries and pistacios. “However, if it were more fatal, I would try it.”

These cures, while currently imposing possible risk, have given hope to students regarding the variety of food that they can consume.

“I would live with a lot more ease in knowing I can eat whatever I want without impending doom,” Groesbeck said. “I would go straight for a Snickers bar, they look like heaven.”