Hopes have been raised high that a cure has been found for the millions of children who suffer from peanut allergy, said to number 10 million around the globe. Those who took part in the large-scale clinical trial found their lives had been “transformed.” The findings have been published in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet.
Working on a tolerance model, the study served allergic children small amounts of peanut protein day by day, increasing the amount incrementally. By the end of the trial, each child was able to eat the equivalent of five peanuts a day. Some could even eat ten peanuts. When they did so, they experienced no reaction at all. 84 percent of the participants in one group, and 91 percent of the other, were “cured” at the end of the experiment, and their immune systems no longer responded to any trace of peanut.
After six months, the treatment led to a reduction in white blood cells, the basophils, that cause the acute inflammation, in response to a trace of peanut protein.
As every parent will know, the phenomenal rise in childhood peanut allergy has led to strict controls on all schools and playgroups lest the tiniest trace of the nut ever find its way into a playground or a lunchbox. The merest suggestion of the nut being present, even in a product made in a factory that handles the nut, could be fatal. It has meant a lifetime of painstaking scrutiny of food labels and concern. Carefree actviites, such as trips to restaurants, wind up being fraught with nerves and anxiety. Peanut butter sandwiches have long been a big no-no.
The severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, is potentially life-threatening and awful to experience, both for the allergy sufferer, and for those who have to witness it. The allergen triggers a set of chemical reactions in the body, starting with a plummet in blood pressure and then often rapid swelling. The patient can find it difficult to speak, swallow or take a breath, and sometimes they pass out. Sufferers carry Epi-pens, which administer a dose of adrenalin. This has to be injected into the thigh muscle. Although death is comparatively rare, it can be a killer. Regardless, the episodes are terrifying and require hospitalization afterwards to stabilize the patient. Around fifty people a year die in the US from peanut allergy.
Avoiding such torments would be any allergy sufferers dream come true.
Now, it may soon be possible. One of the children who took part in the trail at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge said, it had been “an adventure” and that it had “changed her life.” Lena Barden, 11, though, confessed that, despite being able to eat five a day, she still hated peanuts. Only one of the 99 children had to withdraw from the trial. There were some mild reactions in around a fifth of them, the most common being an itch in the mouth. Some of the children have remained tolerant now for a period of five years.
Another child who took part, Chris Poll, who came from Perth in Western Australia, said that he felt an enormous burden had been taken from his shoulders. He no longer had to fret about “normal” things like going to parties and to school camps, and eating out in restaurants.
Researcher, Andrew Clark, saw at first hand how the children’s lives were improved dramatically. He said they had seen “fantastic results.” Both he and fellow-researcher Dr Pamela Ewan, however, have cautioned against any attempts to emulate the trial at home. Although the outcome has been extremely positive, it was conducted under specialist conditions, and with peanuts of exceptionally high standards. Further work would need to be done before it could become more widely available, but on no account should parents try it out on their children unsupervised.
The breakthrough has been welcomed by other researchers working in the field. Professor Gideon Lack also runs a trial based out of the Evalina Hospital in London. He said the Cambridge trail was a “really important step” in the management of peanut allergy, but also cautioned it was not yet ready for clinical application.
Lack has called for a risk assessment to ensure there are no inherent dangers for the children taking part. Lack also pointed out that those who had a peanut allergy, more often than not, were allergic to other nuts as well. That being the case, an instant switch to a worry-free and carefree lifestyle was not a given. He wants to know how long the results will last, and whether the initial relief at being symptom free may lead to a “false sense of security.”
With further caution, Lack questioned the longer-term effect of the peanut exposure, and whether, for example, an inflamed esophagus, could still occur even without the full-scale reaction. His conclusion is that the results are “encouraging” but that avoiding eating peanuts was still the bottom-line advice for all.
The Director of Clinical Services at Allergy UK, Maureen Jenkins, was excited by the study, and said that it had exceeded all expectation. Speaking of how frightening peanut allergy could be, she said that this was “a major step forward in the global quest” to manage the condition.
Another allergy charity, Anaphylaxis Campaign, welcomed the outcomes of the research. CEO Lynne Regent, said they looked forward to seeing the next developments and it was clear that the oral desensitization treatment could transform the lives of those who had food allergy.
A cure for peanut allergy is proven to work and this is wonderful news for the future of allergy treatment.
By Kate Henderson