UK scientists find possible cure for peanut allergy

Scientists in Britain have made a major breakthrough in the fight to cure peanut allergies in children. A new therapy exposes children to minute quantities of peanuts mixed up with other foods as a powder, and gradually builds up their resistance over time. This immunotherapy treatment has been shown to benefit more than four out of five children who suffered from the allergy, all of whom were at risk from experiencing a life threatening reaction to peanuts.

© Alamy

© Alamy

The treatment started off with participants consuming an amount equivalent to one 70th of a peanut, and gradually increasing this amount over the following three to four months. The first treatments were administered in a clinic so that any adverse reactions could be monitored and dealt with by medical staff. Further treatments were carried out in the patients’ homes. Eventually the children were able to consume five peanuts in one go, with some managing to eat ten.

Researchers at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge tested children between the ages of seven and sixteen, with lead researcher Dr Andrew Clark stating: “Before treatment children and their parents would check every food label and avoid eating out in restaurants. Now most of the patients in the trial can safely eat at least five whole peanuts. The families involved in this study say it has changed their lives dramatically.”

It is thought that peanut allergies affect over one in fifty children, with those who are severely affected at risk of anaphylactic shock, where the body overreacts to the smallest amount of peanut. Sufferers with a serious allergy have to carry an EpiPen, which is a device that administers a shot of adrenaline in emergencies. Symptoms of a severe allergy include swelling of the face, hands and feet and extreme difficulty in breathing. In some cases the reaction can be fatal.

This is not the first time that immunotherapy has been tried with peanut allergy sufferers, but this new research involves a much more gradual approach than previous therapies. It is thought that to maintain the resistance to peanut allergies, sufferers would have to ‘top up’ their immunity with regular exposure.

Dr Clark said that the UK team have put in an application for a license, which will allow them to use the powder as a medical treatment, and become available on the NHS.

The treatment has not yet been tested on adults and Dr Clark warned that only professionals should be allowed to carry out this therapy.

Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services at Allergy UK, said: “The fantastic results of this study exceed expectation. Peanut allergy is a particularly frightening food allergy, causing constant anxiety of a reaction from peanut traces. This is a major step forward in the global quest to manage it.”

Other experts are remaining cautious about the new treatment, with Prof Barry Kay, from the department of allergy and clinical immunology at Imperial College London, saying: “The real issues that still remain include how long the results will last, and whether the positive effects might lead affected individuals to have a false sense of security. Another issue to address is whether there will be long term side-effects of repeated peanut exposure even where full allergic reaction does not occur, such as inflammation of the oesophagus. So, this study shows encouraging results that add to the current literature, but more studies are needed to pin down these issues before the current advice to peanut allergy sufferers, which is to avoid eating peanuts, is changed.”

The study has been published in The Lancet.