More than 15 million people in the United States live with food allergies that impact every meal they eat. For some, accidentally ingesting a snack that their body deems taboo can ignite a violent biological response. Every three minutes someone is rushed to the emergency room due to a food-allergy reaction, and among children, peanut intolerance is the leading cause of throat-swelling, life-threatening anaphylaxis. But new research from Australia may provide a promising lead to fighting peanut allergies in kids.
Using a mix of peanut protein and bacteria found in yogurt, pediatric immunologists from Murdoch Childrens Research Institute temporarily treated 80 percent of their allergy-stricken patients, they reported this month in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “These findings provide the first vital step towards developing a cure for peanut allergy and possibly other food allergies,” lead author Mimi Tang said to The Guardian. “Many of the children and families believe it has changed their lives, they’re very happy, they feel relieved.”
Previous studies have shown that probiotics, which are good bacteria that promote a healthy digestive system, can fight food allergies in mice. But this is the first study of its kind to show success in people. About 60 children with peanut allergies between the ages of 1 and 10 took part in the study. Every day for 18 months, half of the randomly assigned kids ingested the probiotics dissolved in water and the peanut protein, and the other half took a placebo drink and ate a placebo powder that looked, smelled and tasted like the treatment. The kids in the peanut therapy group received 0.024 grams of peanut protein the first day and then gradually had their dosage increased every two weeks over the next eight months to build up their tolerances. For the final 10 months of the study, their treatment included two grams of peanut protein in yogurt and the equivalent of 20 kilograms of yogurt. Though the experiments took place under the researcher’s supervision, over the course of 18 months some of the children experienced adverse reactions, such as wheezing and mild discomfort, to anaphylactic episodes that needed to be treated with adrenaline.
On the last day of the study, the team tested the children to see if their bodies could handle ingesting 4 grams of peanut protein. Neither the researchers nor the patients knew who had been taking the treatment or placebo for the past 18 months. According to Tang, 26 of the 29 children in the therapy group ate the peanut protein without having any allergic reactions, while only 2 of the 28 children from the placebo group were able to do the same. Following the first test, those who passed were retested after two to five weeks of not eating any peanut products. In the second test, 23 of 25 children who received the treatment were still peanut allergy-free (one dropped out of the study), while only one child from the placebo group still showed no allergic reaction. Some people may naturally outgrow peanut allergies, Tang said, but she pointed out that her treatment was 20 times more effective than waiting for the body to build its own tolerance, at least in this small group.
“The likelihood of success was high— if nine children were given probiotic and peanut therapy, seven would benefit,” Tang said in a statement. She also found that three months after the second test, all but one of the children who passed were regularly eating between five peanuts and three tablespoons of peanut butter a week.
The next steps are to see how long the tolerance lasts. The researchers plan to have the children who passed the tests go eight weeks without eating peanuts, and then retest them. Though parents of the approximately 1.4 percent of American children allergic to peanuts might find the results exciting, Tang cautions adults against attempting to repeat her study with their own kids. “It is important to point out that this treatment must be only be given under close medical supervision,” she said in a statement. “As we are giving peanuts to children who are allergic to peanuts, and children did have allergic reactions.”