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Farewell to Peanut Allergies

Imagine a world where nobody's allergic to peanuts.

Where passengers on planes could snack on peanuts; where parents wouldn't have to worry about their kids' gasping for air after taking a bite of a PB&J sandwich; where allergic kids wouldn't have to carry EpiPens everywhere they go -- and wouldn't have to learn how to stab themselves in the thigh to halt an allergic reaction. Where you could bring peanut-butter cookies to bake sales without fear that they'd make someone sick. And where manufacturers of candies and baked goods wouldn't have warn that their products were made in factories where peanuts were present.

That world -- or something like it, anyway -- could become real in just a few years, if a report in the current issue of The Lancet has got it right. Wesley Burks of the Duke University Medical Center writes that "It is likely that in the next five years there will be some type of immunotherapy available for peanut allergenic individuals."

Peanut allergies affect an estimated 1 percent of kids under 5; some develop skin rashes when exposed to peanuts, experience gastrointestinal problems, and still others suffer respiratory distress, which can be severe and even life-threatening.

For reasons unknown, the prevalence of peanut allergies among kids doubled between 1997 and 2002 and is thought to have continued to grow ever since. Some suspect the hygiene hypothesis, which postulates that our over-sanitized surroundings have reduced kids' opportunities to develop healthy immune responses to allergens, is in play here. (Read more about this notion in Rob Stein's dogs-versus-cats blog from last week.) Others suggest that pregnant or breast-feeding mothers' peanut-eating may trigger peanut allergies in their babies.

Not knowing the cause makes it harder for researchers to find a cure. But Burks and others are convinced that people with peanut allergies may soon find relief through immunotherapy, in which the allergic person is exposed to gradually-increased amounts of stuff that causes the allergic reaction, thereby building the person's tolerance for those allergens. This is a quintessential "don't try this at home" activity, by the way: because the consequences of exposure can be so dire, the whole process needs to be carefully orchestrated and monitored by physicians.

Burks also mentions efforts to engineer a new kind of peanut that's free of the various substances to which people have developed allergic reactions. But, he says in the study, "The process of altering enough of the peanut allergens to make a modified peanut that is less likely to cause an allergic reaction would probably render the new peanut no longer a peanut."

Five years must seem an eternity to folks dealing with peanut allergies every day of their lives. But at least there's hope.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 6, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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Wouldn't this be great? As the mother of a peanut allergic child, this would truly be a God-send.

Now, if we could just get rid of the egg-allergy, too!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 6, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I read the PDF you link to from the article. It provides no evidence of a treatment that would justify your headline. The PDF document indicates that there is research ongoing to treat peanut allergies. As there has been for years. It discusses no new or revolutionary results. In fact, it appears you have based your entire article on literally the LAST sentence in the report. If this were a main point in the report, I would have expected it to be perhaps mentioned somewhere prior to the last sentence.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 6, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I completely agree with the 10:05 poster. Your synopsis of the actual report was completely misleading -- readers of your publication are relying on your reporters to provide a much more informed summary rather than write yet another "we are so close to curing ..." article. It would have been better to skip YOUR report altogether.

Posted by: Virginia Mom | May 6, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

I don't know what study 10:05 and Virginia Mom read. The introduction to the paper states that it looks at the "changing epidemiology of this allergy-and theories as to the rise in prevalence, diagnosis, and management of the allergy, and potential new treatments and PREVENTION STUDIES UNDER DEVELOPMENT." The paper logically follows these points in order and the researcher concluded that "It is likely that in the next 5 years there will be some type of immunotherapy available for peanut allergic individuals." The end of a scientific study seems like an appropriate place for a conclusion.

Posted by: no name | May 6, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

FYI, Jennifer Huget, I believe that the AAP has said quite clearly that exposure to peanuts at an early age does not induce the allergy.

Posted by: Ryan | May 6, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

As sister to PA teen, this will be great when it's on the market. I just hope it won't create an even more dangerous "blame the victim" environment for people who don't get the shot -- there will still be a segment of people who can't afford the therapy or who don't find it effective.

Posted by: Skoochie | May 6, 2008 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Isn't this going on now? One of my daughter's friends used to have a peanut allergy and has gone through some sort of desensitization; he can now tolerate at least some exposure to peanuts.

Posted by: Grumpyoldlady | May 6, 2008 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I find it disingenous that with peanut allergies doubling in just five years the author and researchers wouldn't be looking more closely at environmental concerns rather than breastfeeding, which predates the window of allergy growth by millenia! Why aren't we reading about what toxins entered the environment during that period in numbers great enough to shift an infant or fetal immune system?

Posted by: molama | May 6, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I just met someone whose daughter is severely allergic to peanuts. She thinks it has something to do with a change in the way peanuts are grown and harvested that began about 15 years ago. I'm also allergic to peanuts but didn't figure it out until my 30s. I'm sure this allergey was responsible for severe stomachaches I had as a child and periodic rashes.

Posted by: ItshotinPHX | May 7, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I found it surprising that so many people have never heard of treating allergies this way. In order to build up an immunity to the allergy in question, patients are exposed to an increasingly larger amount of the allergen, starting with an extremely small amount, of course. This is how vaccines are made, so it makes sense that the same method is put into practice to treat allergies. When it is successful, it is an excellent way to treat what might otherwise have been an extremely irritating lifelong condition.

Posted by: Whitney C. (aka: JOURNALISM ROCKS!!!) | May 8, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Uh, Whitney, that's NOT how vaccines are made. Nice try, though.

Posted by: Ryan | May 8, 2008 7:29 PM | Report abuse

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