June 23, 2006 -- Just being in the same room as peanuts can send Liam Park into a violent allergy attack. And yet, the 4-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., intentionally eats peanut flour every day.
Liam is part of a potentially groundbreaking study at Duke Medical Center aimed at finding out whether children with peanut allergies can be desensitized to peanuts and eventually cured of their ailment altogether.
"Our goals in treatment are the desensitization, to make them less sensitive and also to make their peanut allergy go away," said Dr. Wesley Burks, chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Duke Medical Center.
A Growing Problem
The number of children under 5 with peanut allergies has doubled between 1997 and 2002, according the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a nonprofit organization devoted to educating the public about food allergies. The National Institutes of Health says peanut allergies currently affect 0.6 percent of the population, and approximately 150 Americans die from food-induced anaphylaxis each year.
Liam was diagnosed with a peanut allergy when he was 2, and it changed his family's life.
"It's an emotional roller coaster," said Jennifer Park, Liam's mother. "It just felt like you had to change your whole lifestyle. I mean, we can't eat in restaurants with him because [of]cross-contamination with the foods."
At preschool, Liam sits at a separate table where no peanut products are allowed. He survived a terrifying incident on a plane while flying home from Disneyland when passengers opened their bags of peanuts and nut dust circulated in the air. Liam had an almost immediate reaction.
"He was starting to really swell and the sneezing just wasn't stopping," Jennifer Park said. "I mean there is a good chance he might not have made it off the plane if I didn't have the Benadryl or if we were on a longer flight."
Introducing the Peanut
Park is hoping the Duke study will give her son a chance to lead a more normal life.
As part of Burks' study, Liam takes tiny, precise amounts of peanut flour every day, and that dose is increased every two weeks.
"What we're seeing is that they really are less sensitive to peanuts," Burks said. "If they accidentally have a bite of something with peanut in it, they're not reacting."
Burks stresses that parents should not try this at home on their own. In his study, the peanut flour is administered under tight medical supervision, and patients are observed for hours afterwards. Even so, the first time Liam ate the powder was a terrifying moment for him and his family.
"Oh, it's scary," Parks said. "I just prayed."
"What we're doing is counterintuitive to what we've told them before," Burks added. "We've always asked them not to ingest this."
In the end, it might be worth the anxiety.
Hope for a Cure
Sam Duty, 6, has participated in Duke study for over a year and a half. He eats the equivalent of a whole peanut every day.
"He will be the first one in this study who eventually will reintroduce peanuts into his life," said Angie Duty, Sam's mother. "And I don't know that he's going to like them. But, you know, he can have them."
Liam has only been in the study for a few weeks, but he is already making progress. At first, he had a more violent reaction to his peanut flour dose, but now he experiences only minor itching and a sneeze.
"That is really what we have seen in almost all of them -- that they have had mild symptoms the first day or the second time and then as you get a higher dose, you get less and less symptoms" Burks said. "That is why we are encouraged by the results for far, because it really does appear that they are becoming desensitized."
Burks said the therapy works by depleting the body of chemicals that cause allergic reactions.
"It may not make him be able to eat a peanut butter sandwich some day, but if it could keep him from dying from being in the same room with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich...just to keep him from a life threatening situation, I feel like we won," Jennifer Parks said.
If successful, Burks said the desensitization therapy should be able to help all different kinds of food allergies. He predicts there will be a viable treatment for peanut allergies within five years.
For more information about peanut allergies, visit Foodallergy.org, Medicalert.org and Foodallergyinitiative.org.