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October 5, 2006

Wall Street Journal Article on Peanut Allergy Research

Taming peanut allergy takes researchers down uncertain road

The peanut industry is helping fund the quest for a "nut-free" peanut, in an effort to diminish the risks for people with peanut allergies.

In a world of wheat-free cookies and dairy-free ice cream, the peanut industry is helping fund the quest for a "nut-free" peanut.

Peanuts aren't nuts at all, of course, but legumes, or seeds, as are beans and lentils. An estimated 1.5 million Americans, including some 600,000 children, experience allergic reactions to peanuts, ranging from hives to nausea to sometimes-fatal anaphylactic shock. With most of the annual 150 food-allergy deaths blamed on peanuts, many schools have created peanut-free zones or gone totally "peanut free."

The number of children with peanut allergies has skyrocketed, doubling from 1997 to 2002, according to a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. And it's a mystery why peanut allergies are causing more problems. One explanation is that physicians are more adept at detecting them. Another is that the modern environment may be, in a sense, too clean: If the human immune system were exposed to more allergens, a peanut might not send it into overdrive.

An approved asthma drug, Xolair, may be useful in treating peanut and other food allergies; injected into patients, it would reduce certain antibodies that are thought to cause anaphylactic food allergy. Last year, though, clinical trials came to a halt after two children, who had been given peanut protein in a screening to gauge the severity of their allergy, experienced anaphylactic reactions. The drug's makers -- Genentech, Novartis and Tanox -- are working with the Food and Drug Administration to design a new trial, Genentech says.

Determined scientists, in some cases with peanut-industry funding, are trying to develop other therapies, or a vaccine, to prevent or reduce the severity of peanut reactions. A nut-free peanut would be genetically altered so that it is less likely to set off an immune response. Peanut farmers and food processors have given $5.6 million over the past decade to eight scientists, mainly for peanut-allergy work, says Howard Valentine, of the American Peanut Council.

Two researchers -- Wesley Burks, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center, and Hugh Sampson, his counterpart at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine -- are trying to create a vaccine. They have slightly modified the three peanut proteins responsible for most reactions so they don't trigger such strong reactions from human mast cells. By administering the modified proteins to subjects in slowly increasing doses, they hope to condition their immune systems to tolerate more. They have tested the therapy on mice and plan to start on humans in a year or so.

Another experimental therapy aims to reduce the severity of reactions. Dr. Burks's team administers powdered or liquid peanut proteins to patients in incrementally increasing doses, starting with 0.001 peanut the first day, to one whole peanut six months later. They hope one day to develop a drug or a physician-administered therapy. In a trial completed on eight patients, Dr. Burks says the subjects tolerated 13 peanuts before experiencing a reaction -- enough, in theory, to save an allergic child's life in case of accidental ingestion.

Peanut interests have helped to fund the work of Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia, Tifton. She wants to develop a plant whose peanuts are free of the three major protein allergens.


Posted by David at October 5, 2006 10:56 AM