Researchers have developed a pill that can act as a sort of vaccine for peanut allergies. The pill contains peanut proteins that harden the immune system, reducing the risk and severity of an allergic reaction to peanuts, one of the most common allergies around the world.

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Credit: Pixabay.

Peanuts are rich in monounsaturated fats, the type of fat that is emphasized in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Peanuts are also good sources of vitamin E, niacin, folate, protein, and manganese. In addition, peanuts provide resveratrol, the phenolic antioxidant also found in red grapes and red wine, that is thought to be responsible for the French paradox: the fact that in France, people consume a diet that is not low in fat, but have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to the U.S.

Unfortunately, many people cannot access this nutritional value — in fact, eating peanuts could kill them. It’s believed one in every 70 children and one in every 160 adults is allergic to peanuts. Even a tiny sprinkling of nuts can trigger an immune response, from a mild rash to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

An allergy is the response of the body’s immune system to normally harmless substances, such as pollen, foods, or house dust mite particles. This hypersensitivity causes the body to overreact by producing a disproportionate immune response when contacting an allergen. In some cases, the response can be so strong that the body enters anaphylactic shock. One study estimates the quality of life of children with food allergies is worse than that of children with diabetes. You can stay away from peanuts and derivatives but there’s always the risk of coming in contact with the allergen by accident.

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It’s not clear what causes allergies or why some people are more predisposed to them than others. Studies so far have linked both genetic and environmental factors to allergies. What’s certain, it seems, is that allergies are on the rise regardless of gender or ethnic background. According to a recent study, the incidence of shellfish allergy has grown by 7 percent, tree nuts by 18 percent, and peanuts by 21 percent. Shellfish and peanuts are also among the most common food allergies overall.

In an attempt to stave off this wave of rising allergies among the general population, researchers at the University of North Carolina have developed a preemptive oral immunotherapy. The treatment is for people who are already allergic to nuts, being meant to protect them in case they might accidentally ingest the allergenic.

By exposing the allergic person to minute amounts of peanut protein, the immune system is trained not to react as severely as it would upon exposure to the allergen. Over time, the patient is desensitized by applying increased doses of peanut protein.

The effectiveness of the ‘peanut pills’ was assessed in a study involving 29 participants, aged 4 to 26, along with a control group comprising 26 participants. Participants in the first group were given over the course of six months the drug that packed peanut flour. The control group received a pill that contained only oat flour. As time marched on, the dose of peanut-flour pills became gradually stronger.

After the six months, the study participants were asked to ingest one and a half peanuts. Among those who had taken the peanut pills, 79 percent exhibited no allergic reaction. The results were completely upside down in the control group, with 81 percent exhibiting mild to moderate reactions.

“It’s great to have patients go from managing to tolerate at most the amount of peanut protein in a 10th of a peanut without reacting, to successfully eating the equivalent of between two to four peanuts with nothing more than mild, transient symptoms, if any at all,” said the study’s lead author Dr. A. Wesley Burks, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina

This is nut a cure

Previously, Burks and colleagues completed a year-long Phase 3 clinical trial involving 496 kids aged 4 to 17. Half the kids were administered the AR101 pills manufactured by Aimmune Therapeutics containing increasing amounts of peanut protein powder up to 300 milligrams, the equivalent of one peanut. The researchers found 67.2 percent of the AR101 group could handle a 600-milligram dose without ill effect, but only 4 percent of placebo patients could do the same. Similar positive findings have been reported by other researchers elsewhere working with an increased dose of peanut protein, administered alongside probiotics. 

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The researchers stress that their treatment isn’t meant to cure peanut allergies. Rather, it’s a treatment meant to protect patients from a potentially life-threatening encounter with an allergen. It will take more and larger clinical trials before the treatment receives FDA approval. There is no information as yet concerning the treatment’s pricing.

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