Today, Sam Duty can eat peanut butter sandwiches and candies easily, but at one time in the 9-year-old's life, ingesting peanuts was dangerous and possibly lethal because he was highly allergic to peanuts.
His mother, Angela Duty, worried about even the smallest interactions with peanuts.
"The first small bite of peanut butter — his lips started to swell," Duty said. "It's horrible. You know, you want the best for your children, and you're fighting something you can't see."
Nearly half of the 150 deaths attributed to food allergies each year in the United States are caused by peanut allergies, according to Duke University.
Once, Sam had to be hospitalized after ingesting peanuts. He was like so many other children, who have life-threatening reactions that can occur from even trace amounts of peanuts.
A Common Cure?Sam's life-altering allergy had his parents closely monitoring and controlling every morsel that went into his mouth.
"I'm the mom that calls ahead of time and asks what they're going to eat, where they're going to eat, how they're going to eat," Duty said.
So when Sam was asked to be a part of a groundbreaking study that would require him to be given peanuts on purpose, surprisingly his parents jumped at the chance.
In the study, Duke University Medical Center and colleagues at Arkansas Children's Hospital found a way to desensitize children to peanuts by using the very thing to which the children are allergic — peanuts.
"They appear to be no longer allergic to peanuts," said Dr. Wesley Burks of Duke University Medical Center. "What we're doing is trying to help Sam's immune system change and recognize peanuts differently."
Children in the study were given tiny, precise amounts of peanut flour daily and every few weeks the dosage was increased. Medical staff was nearby to deal with any minor allergic reactions.
Even with the precautions, the first time Sam ate the powder, his family was terrified.
"We'd told Sam not to eat peanuts, or nuts, all of his life. And then all of a sudden, this study wants Sam to take peanuts every single day," Duty said.
The ResultsAfter getting daily doses of peanuts, Sam and the other study participants seemed to build tolerance to them quickly. Within months they were eating whole peanuts.
But the true challenge for the Dutys came in 2007 — three years after Sam joined the study. He was now eating peanuts on a daily basis, but could he handle a whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
"He had no reaction. So it was a success. All the peanuts that we had fed him delivered no reaction," Duty said.
"Beginning the study it took literally less than a 10th of peanut for [Sam] to have allergic symptoms. As we got into the study on the first challenge he tolerated 13 to 15 peanuts without symptoms," Burks said.
Immune-system tests showed no sign of remaining allergy in five youngsters, and others can withstand amounts that once would have left them wheezing or worse, scientists reported Sunday.
Today Sam is on daily maintenance dose of peanut indefinitely in order to keep up his tolerance. And it's not your average daily medication.
"It's not really even medicine, it's just Reese's Pieces," Sam said.
Ironically Sam has never learned to love peanuts or peanut butter, but his mother is relieved she is no longer concerned about what Sam puts in his mouth.
"You don't have to worry as much. You can send your kid to school, and not worry about a reaction at school, or a reaction at a friend's house. You can go out to eat," Duty said. "It's just — it's changed our lives."
But doctors have stopped short of calling the study's participants cured. They must track them for years longer before making that determination.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.