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.
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