New Therapy for Food Allergy Builds Tolerance Through Exposure

The concept of oral immunotherapy is not entirely new, however. Sampson said it dates back to the early 20th century, and was researched more extensively in the 1940s and '50s as a treatment for food allergy.

It fell off sometime after that, but was researched as a treatment for penicillin allergy.

By the late '90s, research into oral immunotherapy for food allergy was revived, Sampson said, but was limited to open-label trials, in which all patients received the therapy. These types of trials do not carry as much weight as randomized controlled trials.

Food Allergies in Children Rising

Another therapy -- sublingual immunotherapy, or SLIT -- uses a similar approach, but instead of fully ingesting the proteins, they are placed under the patient's tongue.

Sampson said that the therapy typically carries a lower risk for adverse reactions, but it is not necessarily as effective as oral immunotherapy.

"It doesn't seem to desensitize the patient as quickly," he said, "but it may [do so] over a longer period."

Burks said the prevalence of children with food allergies is rising and is higher now than ever before, although the reasons are still unclear. One explanation may be what researchers call the "Hygiene Hypothesis," which holds that kids aren't being exposed to the appropriate bacteria in order to adequately engage their immune systems.

Or, Sampson says, it may have something to do with a Western diet and lifestyle. Asian patients, for example, have a lower prevalence of peanut allergy. He said that could have something to do with the way the food is prepared: Americans tend to eat peanuts raw, while Asians cook them. Heating a protein causes changes to its structure, and that could potentially make it more allergenic, he said.

Either way, he said oral immunotherapy is promising, particularly for those food allergies that children don't outgrow. (Many outgrow egg and milk allergies after the first five or six years of life, but 80 percent of patients with peanut allergy will retain it into adulthood.)

"These are the first studies for food allergy in a long time," Burks said, "and they have given us some hope that we can have an ... effective, proactive therapy in the next several years."

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