New treatment for peanut allergies
Children suffering from potentially lethal nut allergies can now live normal lives for the first time following the success of an experimental new treatment.
Doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge have developed a pioneering therapy which effectively “retrains” the immune systems of patients who have food allergies so that they become desensitised to the food.
Trials of the technique have so far helped 20 children with severe peanut allergies overcome their life-threatening condition.
Before the treatment, many of the young patients could not touch even trace amounts of peanuts without suffering a reaction but now the researchers claim the youngsters can safely eat up to 12 peanuts a day without having any reaction.
The clinicians are now planning to carry out larger scale clinical trials of the treatment to test its effectiveness and also hope to develop the therapy to treat other dangerous allergies to foods such as milk, egg and gluten.
They hope that the treatment could eventually become a routine way of combating allergies.
Dr Pamela Ewan, a senior consultant at the department of allergy and medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital who led the research, said: “So far we have treated 20 patients successfully who can now safely eat up to 12 peanuts a day.
“Nuts are the most common food to cause severe, fatal or near fatal reactions. The patients have told us it has been a massive life changing experience. The mothers and the children say it has taken away a huge fear that had been looming over them.”
Dr Ewan, who led the study along with Dr Andrew Clark, another consultant in allergy at the hospital, used tiny doses of peanut flour which were given to the children every day to gradually desensitise their immune systems.
Peanut allergies are triggered by part of the immune system known as antigens that wrongly identify proteins in peanuts as a threat and cause the immune system to attack the patient’s own body.
The symptoms vary in severity from a mild stomach upset and rash to anaphylactic reactions and breathing difficulties that can result in death.
The researchers found that if started giving children doses of peanut flour that were lower than the minimum amount required to trigger an allergic reaction, they could gradually increase the dose every two weeks until the youngsters could eat the equivalent of six peanuts a day.
After the four month long treatment, the children need to continue taking peanuts every day to ensure their immune system continues to be desensitised, and 20 patients, aged between 5 and 17 years old, can now eat 12 peanuts a day.
“We are essentially retraining the immune system by presenting it with a very low dose to being with and gradually increasing it,” said Dr Ewan. “For some, they were getting reactions when they had just one 400th of a peanut.
“We give them less than that to start with and build up from there. It is still early days as we still need to work out how long term the desensitisation is.”
She added that the treatment should not be attempted outside of a hospital research study. She said: It would certainly not be safe.
“We have to increase their dose in hospital in case they take an adverse reaction, but then after the initial increase they continue taking the dose every day at home for two weeks before it is increased again.”
Around one in 50 children in the UK suffer from nut allergies, which is generally considered to be a lifelong condition as only a small number of children outgrow it.
The impact on their lives can be profound as even shaking hands with someone who has been touching nuts can trigger a reaction.
All food is now required to show clearly on the label if it contains nuts or if it has been made in premises that might contain nuts.
Jules Payne, deputy chief executive at Allergy UK, said: “This gives tremendous hope for food allergy sufferers. Food allergies can make life so miserable.
“We wouldn’t want people to try this treatment themselves as they need to be in a clinically controlled environment.”