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UNC working to end children's peanut allergies

Posted September 29
Updated October 6

UNC trying to eliminate allergic reactions to peanuts
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— Childhood food allergies have dramatically grown over the last two decades, and one out of every 13 children under age 18 now has a food allergy.

Peanuts are among the foods that cause the most severe reactions, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is working on a solution to the problem.

When 7-year-old Alice Barkauskas was just 18 months old, she had a sudden allergic reaction.

"The nanny called and said that Alice's face was swelling up and her lips were swollen and her eyes were getting swollen shut," recalled Alice's mother, Christina Barkauskas.

Barkauskas rushed home and gave the toddler some Benadryl, which helped. Testing later confirmed a peanut allergy that, even with skin contact, could become life-threatening.

"It's a frightening thing for a parent," Barkauskas said.

So, she enrolled Alice in a peanut allergy trial at UNC with Dr. Brian Vickery, an allergist and immunologist and adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine.

Participants were introduced to tiny amounts of peanut protein in a controlled environment. As their tolerance improved, the amounts increased, often mixed in with other food at home.

Several research sites around the world shared data, but the concept needed larger, more rigorous trials, which are underway.

"So, all this early stage research in the later '90s, early 2000s has culminated in, you know, we're getting really close to changing the standard of care," Vickery said.

He said the goal isn't simply protecting children from accidental ingestion of peanut protein. It is allowing them to consume peanut products on a regular basis.

"We were able to show that almost 80 percent of the kids in this study were able to do that," he said.

Vickery said research has shown the allergic response levels increase with age.

"It starts early in life, and you respond to the treatment better when your levels are lower. We should treat young kids," he said.

The lessons learned from peanut allergy studies might carry over to allergies involving such foods as eggs, milk and tree nuts, he said. But he added that other food allergies present their own set of challenges and peanut protein is easier to work with in a research setting than other most other food allergens.

Alice doesn't like the taste of peanuts – even in candy – but for her, regular exposure is like medicine.

"We encourage her to eat a little bit of peanut every so often just to keep her tolerance up," Barkauskas said.

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