Scientists have developed a new treatment for those who suffer from a potentially life-threatening peanut allergy that affects approximately 2% of children. Recent research indicates that gradually increasing the amount of peanut protein the body can handle boosts tolerance to the nut, and this immunotherapy has proved to be a successful method of treatment in nine out of ten recipients.
Immunotherapy is a treatment strategy that aims to modulate the immune system by desensitising it through exposure to the allergen (the substance that normally causes the allergic responses).
Half of the children that partook in the research, aged between seven and sixteen years, were given gradual increasing doses of peanut flour. The other half continued to avoid exposure to peanuts. The study lasted six months and found that 84-91% of the children given peanut flour could safely tolerate the equivalent of five peanuts daily and at least 25 times the amount that could be tolerated before treatment. Children in the control group could tolerate no more than they could at the start of the study.
The study was carried out by researchers from the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and was funded by the Medical Research Council. It involved 99 children and is the largest trial to test an oral immunotherapy to date.
Andrew Clark of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, who co-led the research team, said: “Before the treatment, children and their parents had to check every food label, but now they can go out anywhere without fear of accidentally swallowing and reacting to traces of peanuts.”
Pamela Ewan, co-leader of the team, said: “The only current ‘treatments’ are avoidance of peanut-containing food and shots of adrenaline to treat reactions.”
After the initial trial, 39 of those who could handle five peanuts daily then faced a new challenge: to eat the equivalent to 10 peanuts. 62% succeeded.
Researchers highlighted that peanut allergies are the most common cause of severe and sometimes fatal allergic reactions to food. Immunotherapy has been used for many years, to treat bee sting allergies, but previous attempts to treat peanut allergies with injections (the usual form of the therapy) were unsuccessful.
The results of this study are encouraging and are likely to lead to further investigation into oral immunotherapy for peanut allergies, as well as other food allergies. However, further research is required before this treatment can be approved, a process that could take up to several years.
Researchers note that it is unclear how long the children’s tolerance to peanuts will last and whether they will need top-up treatments. Those who conducted the study hope that this type of therapy will reduce the risk of a severe allergic reaction if a person inadvertently eats food containing small amounts of peanut, though it is unlikely to amount to a complete cure where a person with a peanut allergy can consume large amounts of peanuts regularly.