Treatment for Peanut Allergies Shows PromiseBy TARA PARKER-POPE
A medically supervised daily dose of peanuts may help children with peanut allergies greatly increase their tolerance to the food, according to two new studies that raise the possibility of a cure for this potentially life-threatening condition.
The findings, presented on Sunday at a meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Washington, suggest that a treatment for peanut allergy may be developed in two or three years, said Dr. Wesley Burks, the chief of the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center, who helped conduct the research.
An estimated 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, including about 2.2 million children. About 3.3 million people are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts. While drugs can be used to treat an allergic reaction, there are no approved treatments for food allergies.
Because even a minor exposure can set off a reaction, many people at risk strictly avoid foods that contain an allergen or were prepared in places where nuts or other allergens might have been used.
Nearly half of the 150 deaths attributed to food allergies each year in the United States are caused by peanut allergies, according to Duke University.
The new treatment uses doses of peanuts that start as small as one-thousandth of a peanut and eventually increase to about 15 peanuts a day. In a pilot study at Duke University and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, 33 children with documented peanut allergy have received the daily therapy, which is given as a powder sprinkled on food. Most of the children are tolerating the therapy without developing allergic reactions, and five stopped the treatment after two and a half years because they could now tolerate peanuts in their regular diet. But four children dropped out because they could not tolerate the treatment.
In a related study of just 18 children, the researchers gave the treatment to 12 children and a placebo powder to 6. After 10 months, the children were given a medically supervised test exposing them to peanuts. In the placebo group, the children developed symptoms after ingesting the equivalent of one and a half peanuts. In the treatment group, the children tolerated 15 peanuts without symptoms.
Far more study is needed before the treatment can be used outside of a research setting, Dr. Burks said. The Duke/Arkansas study plans to enroll at least 80 children in the next few years to compare the treatment to the placebo.
Researchers in Britain have reported similar results in small studies in which children were given daily peanut doses to build their tolerance. The Consortium of Food Allergy Research, which includes five major research centers in the United States and is financed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is conducting similar treatment studies for both egg and peanut allergies.Dr. Burks pointed out that the children in the studies were under a high level of medical supervision, and that parents should not try the approach on their own. “These studies do give us hope that there will be a treatment in the next two or three years,” he said. “It’s not something to do in practice or at home yet.”