Updated 23 March 2018

Breakthrough: Scientists may have discovered a way to prevent peanut allergies

The first treatment to help prevent serious allergic reactions to peanuts may be on the way.

Millions of children have peanut allergies, and some may have life-threatening reactions if accidentally exposed to them.

A biopharmaceutical company, Aimmune Therapeutics, based in Brisbane, California, said that its daily capsules of peanut flour helped sensitise children to nuts in a major study.

Millions of children have peanut allergies, and some may have life-threatening reactions if accidentally exposed to them.

    A new approach

    The traditional approach is that the substance a person is allergic to (allergen) needs to be avoided at all costs as long as the allergy lasts. 

    The thinking about peanut allergies has however changed in recent years, and experts now think early exposure helps prevent those allergies from forming in the first place.

    Doctors have been testing daily doses of peanut flour, contained in a capsule and sprinkled over food, as a way to prevent that.

    The study involved nearly 500 kids ages four to 17 with severe peanut allergies. They were given either peanut flour or a dummy powder in gradually increasing amounts for six months, then continued on that final level for another six months. Neither the participants nor their doctors knew who was getting what until the study ended.

    Dr Stacie Jones, a University of Arkansas allergy specialist and a leader of he study, cautions that tests need to be done "in a very safe setting" in case any bad reactions should occur. It should not be tried at home.

    FDA approval

    Dr Andrew Bird from the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas also had patients in the study. He said the treatment doesn't enable children to eat the same amount of peanuts as unaffected children, but being able to tolerate at least one peanut should protect 95% of them from having an adverse reaction to peanut exposure.

    About 20% of kids getting the peanut powder dropped out of the study, 12% due to reactions or other problems.

    Aimmune Therapeutics says that 67% of kids who had its treatment were able to tolerate about two peanuts at the end of the study, compared to only 4% of others given a dummy powder. Full results will be presented in the near future.

    Aimmune plans to submit the treatment to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval this year.

    Image credit: iStock


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    Allergy expert

    Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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