by Nicole Basler
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers have reported more than 15 million Americans and 17 million Europeans living with food allergies. A study performed by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) stated that every 3 minutes, an individual is sent to the emergency department due to a food allergy reaction – more than 200,000 visits per year. In particular, peanuts are one of the leading causes of food allergic reactions, and peanut allergies are lifelong conditions which develop in childhood. The number of children with peanut allergies have tripled between 1997 and 2008, and approximately 400,000 school-aged children in the U.S. suffer from this allergy, according to an article on peanut allergies published by CNN. However, there is no cure. Symptoms may occur from any contact with the peanut protein, whether it is accidental exposure or trace contamination of foods. FARE states that the only way to prevent serious health effects and reactions is through the early recognition and management of peanut allergies as well as strict avoidance of these allergens.
In order to combat the severity of peanut allergies, the University of Cambridge has developed a successful new therapy through oral immunotherapy (OIT), which has the ability to desensitize allergic individuals to peanuts. The study found that regularly consuming peanut protein in increasingly larger amounts over time creates tolerance. The research team is led by Dr. Andrew Clark and Dr. Pamela Ewan from Cambridge University’s Department of Medicine, and the trial was performed for five and a half years in the NIHR/Wellcome Trust Cambridge Clinical Research Facility.
99 children (ages 7 to 16) with varying severities of peanut allergy participated in the double-blind placebo-controlled study. In the first part of the trial, the participants were divided. 49 children were randomly assigned to receive 26 weeks of oral immunotherapy (OIT). The active group gradually consumed increasing quantities of peanut protein under medical supervision. 50 remaining children were placed in the control group, which did not receive treatment.
After 6 months of therapy, food challenges were conducted to evaluate the results. 62% of the children who received therapy safely tolerated a daily dose of peanut protein approximately equivalent to ten peanuts. 84–91% of these children tolerated a daily ingestion of peanut protein approximately equivalent to five peanuts. None of the control group tolerated any peanut consumption.
In the second phase of the trial, the control group participants also received immunotherapy intervention. 54% of the control group were able to consume the equivalent of ten peanuts, and 91% tolerated a daily intake of five peanuts. The remaining participants of the trial who reported adverse events experienced mild systems, mostly from oral itching.
According to Dr. Clark, the children and families with whom he has worked agreed that their lives changed dramatically. Before the treatment, they developed constrained food habits, checking every food label and avoiding restaurants. The parents even lived in fear that their children would accidentally ingest peanut crumbs.
The findings of this study have provided hope for the participating children and their families. One of the study’s participants, Lena Barden, 11, said, “I felt like I had won a prize…A year later I could eat 5 whole peanuts with no reaction at all. The trial has been an experience and adventure that has changed my life…”
Further research is necessary to confirm the new results in more patients. While the study yields positive findings, some researchers claim that this therapy is not a cure. Patients who undergo oral immunotherapy are required to continue eating peanuts daily in order to maintain tolerance. Nevertheless, the Cambridge research team aims to provide patients with widespread access to peanut immunotherapy, which will take several years. Meanwhile, Cambridge University Hospitals plan to open a peanut allergy clinic, which would offer various services to patients, including immunotherapy.
Dr. Ewan noted that oral immunotherapy is not a treatment people should attempt on their own. It should only be performed by medical professionals in specific settings. Nevertheless, he praised the potential of this newly developed treatment. Dr. Ewan said, “This…study is the first of its kind in the world to have had such a positive outcome and is an important advance in peanut allergy research.”