Goodbye to killer peanut allergies?

As scientists launch the largest-ever study on the deadly sensitivity, a treatment may be just three years away

Topics: Food Allergy, Food,

Goodbye to killer peanut allergies?

One of the most baffling moments of my undergraduate experience occurred late one night, when a student with a severe peanut allergy returned home from class to discover that her bedroom door had been smeared with peanut butter. When exposed to even small amounts of peanut, the girl’s windpipe could clamp up — and she could go into shock. She immediately left the dorm, never to return. (The culprit was later discovered to be another student who had taken issue with something the girl had said.)

Even if you haven’t experienced as dramatic a peanut-related incident as that, if you’ve eaten at a camp or at a college cafeteria in the last few years you’re aware that food allergies are no laughing matter. Peanut allergies affect 2 percent of Americans, and, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, are the most common cause of death by foods. Soon,  if one group of British doctors are successful, that may be a thing of the past.

As the Telegraph reported over the weekend, British researchers are about to launch the largest-ever investigation on peanut allergies, using 100 children between the ages of 7 and 17. This work is follow-up to a successful smaller study, conducted by researchers at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, England, in which 20 of 23 participants were able to overcome their allergies by gradually being exposed to larger and larger amounts of peanut. Dr. Andrew Clark, who works for the hospital, told the Telegraph that he wants to establish a “clinical treatment that … could spread to the rest of the country” and he’s anticipating that such a result could happen within the next three years (something the Telegraph is touting as a “cure”).

For thousands of children even a small exposure to peanuts can cause a sudden release of histamine and other chemicals into the bloodstream, which can lead to swelling and anaphylactic shock (which can, in turn, constrict airways, cause heart failure and death). The cause of the allergy isn’t clear — it isn’t tied to consumption during pregnancy and it may or may not be linked to levels of early childhood exposure — but the number of children affected by food allergies has been on the increase over the past decade.

The so-called desensitization treatment used by the British doctors isn’t entirely new either. Last year, doctors at Duke University used a similar treatment on 33 children with peanut allergies. They slowly increased the amounts of peanut that the children would consume, from 1/1000 of a peanut to 15 peanuts per day. By the end of the study, four of the children were able to stop treatment and continue eating peanuts — a result confirmed by immunological indicators.

Unlike many other trials, the Brits didn’t use injections, but mixed peanut parts into yogurt. They gradually increased the children’s tolerance over two years until some could consume five nuts at a time. As Dr. Clark said, at the beginning “they would worry it would cause a reaction or even kill them,” but now “they can go out and eat curries and Chinese food and they can eat everyday snacks and treats.”

In the long run, Clark claims, the strategy may also be applicable to other food allergies — a bit of news that is sure to get many parents very excited, and could make the lives of a lot of dining hall chefs considerably easier.

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>