Fighting Peanut Allergies With Peanuts

Research shows that exposing children to peanuts may build allergy tolerance.

October 23, 2008, 4:24 PM

Oct. 23, 2008— -- Three-year-old Peyton Youse of Charlotte, N.C., is severely allergic to peanuts.

But now doctors are fighting back -- with peanuts.

Peyton's mother, Jennifer Youse, drives close to three hours every two weeks so Peyton can participate in an allergy study at Duke University Medical School. Doctors there are working on promising research to see if exposing kids to the very thing they're allergic to will help build tolerance.

"The theory behind it is you start out at very low doses and build up over time," said Dr. Wesley Burks, professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center. "And as you do that, then you lessen the allergic side effects, and then you have the effect on the immune system to make the disease go away."

Food allergies among children are increasing at an alarming rate in the United States. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, three million children in the United States had food or digestive allergies in 2007 -- an increase of 18 percent in a decade.

So researchers are taking on the allergies with new approaches -- including using Chinese herbs and dietary changes.

Children in the Duke study are treated with peanut proteins -- either in liquid or powdered form. The initial dose is only 1/1,000 of a peanut, but it is slowly increased to the equivalent of one peanut and more.

Four children who have completed years of the treatment are now able to tolerate 13 to 15 peanuts without showing even mild symptoms.

Ten-year-old Elissa Miller has seen amazing progress after three years in the study.

"I take six peanuts, and it's very cool because I never thought I would be able to even eat one," she said.

The first time Elissa was exposed to peanut butter, at age two, her throat began to close. Since then, she has carried an epi-pen to school to treat her allergy. She is used to asking questions at restaurants about whether her meal is cooked in peanut oil -- and worrying.

Her improvement is a huge relief to her family, which has worried about everything Elissa touches.

"As a mother with a child with a peanut allergy, I can send her out and not have to worry about it, and know that she can handle it," said Elissa's mother, Sandy Miller.

The research has shown that "we really can change the immune system with this kind of treatment," Burks said.

The children's cell and antibodies no longer have the same severely allergic reaction to peanuts.

Similar results have been found using ancient Chinese herbs. In that research, at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, mice were given an herbal concoction for six weeks. It virtually eliminated their peanut allergies.

"I have been very impressed with what we have been able to see in the mouse model, and I'm somewhat hopeful that we may see similar results in human trials," said Dr. Hugh Sampson, a professor of pediatrics at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "I must say, in the last couple of years, I am finally hopeful that we are going to have something to offer."

Hope is close, not just for those with peanut allergies. Sampson thinks the herbs might treat tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies, as well.

There is also research underway at At Sir Thomas' Hospital in England. There Dr. Gideon Lack is conducting a study in babies to see what might be the better way to prevent food allergies from developing at all.

The conventional wisdom is that parents should hold off feeding children peanuts and other foods that can cause allergic reactions. But Lack's study is trying to determine if the opposite is true, if flooding a baby's immune system with peanuts at an early age might actually teach the body to recognize the food "as a friend, not a foe."

Half of the children will get eat peanut snacks once a week, starting at a young age. The other half avoids peanuts altogether. The children will be followed until age 5.

"We don't know which way it is going to tip," Lack told ABC News. "We literally don't have a clue."

As Lack attempts to find a better strategy to prevent peanut allergies, parents, who must worry about what their child eats, are grateful for the progress so far.

"I'd love for him to be allergy free," Jennifer Youse said. "I'd love it."

Elissa Miller is optimistic. Even with her peanut allergy, her dream is to eat a Reese's peanut butter cup.

"I've never eaten one," she said.

Now, she added, "I probably will someday!"

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