Allergies caused by foods can be not only bothersome, they can be fatal. This fact makes two new breakthrough treatments for children with severe food allergies a breath of fresh air for parents and researchers hoping to save the lives of their children who suffer from extreme allergic reactions to certain types of foods. The new treatments focus on desensitizing children to foods that cause extreme allergic reactions.
The significance of food allergies is not a trite matter. In fact, experts see a parallel between food allergies and the sharp rise of other recent epidemics such as asthma, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. There is no rational explanation for the growth of these diseases, but they continue to afflict millions of Americans.
According to NBC News Chief Medical Editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, while there is no true cure for food allergies in children, the new research offers hope for experts who want to stop the deadly reactions associated with allergies. Snyderman explained that researchers estimate that nearly 15 million Americans have food allergies, and that potentially deadly reactions to food allergies affects nearly six million children under the age of 18 throughout the United States each year. The new research, explained Snyderman, is a glimmer of hope in curbing deaths causes by food allergies.“The hope is that allergies can now be managed so that they are not deadly, “ said Snyderman.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) reported that food-related allergies are caused by a number of foods. However, the most common foods known to trigger severe allergic reactions are well-known. Peanuts and cow’s milk top the list of foods most likely to cause allergies in children. Other foods include eggs, tree nuts, wheat and soy, and shellfish. Experts explain an allergic reaction starts with an ordinary food, like a peanut. The protein within a peanut is misidentified in the body as an invader, like a virus or bad bacteria. The body immediately starts to create a defense for the invader. This sets off a fire hydrant-like release of chemicals into the bloodstream, including histamines. Those chemicals trigger the release of more chemicals, and the chemical chain reaction escalates in a sustained loop. This ever-increasing chemical cascade continues until the heart or the lungs to fail, and the person collapses. This is called anaphylactic shock and it can be deadly. Finding a cure, therefore, becomes a critical focus for researchers who are hopeful new treatments will save lives of children with severe food allergies.
Finding a new treatment for severe food allergies will not only save lives, it will save money as well. According to American Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) researcher, Dr. Ruchi Gupta, the overall economic cost in pediatric food allergy was estimated at just under $25 billion a year. That equates to approximately $5,000 for every child afflicted with allergies across the United States. This figure includes medical costs, clinician visits, emergency department visits, and even hospitalization, explained Gupta. She further stated, “Childhood food allergy results in significant medical costs for our health care system but even larger costs for families.”
The new approach to helping find a cure for food related allergies in children involves two different types of treatments. The first treatment involves oral immunotherapy, a type of allergy management that involves desensitization. According to New York Times reporter, Melanie Thernstrom, the revolutionary new treatment helps children re-educate their over active immune systems by feeding them very small doses of allergy causing foods, gradually increasing the amounts over the course of several months. In addition to the allergy causing foods, patients are injected with the asthma drug Xolair.
“Eventually patients build up their tolerance for the food until it is no longer dangerous,” said Stanford University Allergy Center Director, Dr. Kari Nadeau, who heads up the study on oral immunotherapy. The results of Nadeau’s research has shown remarkable results in childhood patients who suffer from food allergies. After six months of treatment, many children have become desensitized to the foods that used to send them to the hospital. Still Nadeau explained that the treatment is not a complete solution for children suffering from food-related allergies. “Oral immunotherapy is still experimental. Patients are not cured, they are desensitized enough that they can tolerate their former allergens,” said Nadeau.
The second approach is being tested at the Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center (NAAC) in Seattle. Researchers at the NAAC have experimented with a skin patch containing a small amount of known food allergen’s proteins. Because peanuts are one of the most common forms of foods children are allergic to, and because reaction to peanuts can often times be life threatening, the initial research at the Seattle-based NAAC focused on the legume. According to Dr. Stephen Tilles, as the protein-tainted patch is absorbed into the skin, it provides a form of immunotherapy. “The goal is to achieve the same type of results as a vaccination,” said Dr. Tilles.
Whether it is peanuts or cashews, milk or eggs, shrimp or fish, severe food allergies among children is a growing concern among doctors who are searching for new food allergy treatments that will save lives and create a better life for children. While these two experiments have shown great promise to reduce food-related allergies among children, they are still both in the early stages of experimentation, and awaiting FDA approval.
By Vincent Aviani