Health Team

Treatment could cream peanut allergy

Posted March 15, 2009 6:30 p.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2009 9:46 a.m. EDT


— Scientists have the first evidence that life-threatening peanut allergies may be cured one day. A few children are now allergy-free thanks to a treatment in which doctors at Duke University Medical Center gave them tiny peanut amounts to build their tolerances.

They were given very small amounts of peanut. “Then, we begin to increase that dose," said the lead researcher, Dr. A. Wesley Burks, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology. "After six to eight months, we were giving them about the equivalent of one peanut."

Doctors monitored the children closely in case they needed rescue. The experiment could only be done at the hospital because and there was no way people at home could dice a peanut as small as the treatment doses required.

But over three years, the children's bodies learned to tolerate peanuts. Immune-system tests show no sign of remaining allergy in five youngsters, and others can withstand amounts that once would have left them wheezing or worse, researchers reported.

Caroline Vande Berg, who participated in the study, can now eat about 15 to 16 peanuts at a time.

“There's no sniffle, there's no snort, there's no sneeze. There is nothing,” mother Janet Vande Berg said.

More rigorous research is under way to confirm the pilot study, released Sunday at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. If it pans out, the approach could mark a major advance for an allergy that afflicts 1.8 million people in the United States.

For parents of the allergy pioneers, that means no more fear that something as simple as sharing a friend's cookie at school could mean a race to the emergency room.

“It is just knowing that we can send her wherever she wants to go and she can try whatever she wants to eat, and there is not going to be any reaction,” Janet Vande Berg said.

Caroline will eat her daily maintenance dose, but won't dip into the peanut butter jar.

“She wouldn't eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you paid her,” Janet Vande Berg said. "She still doesn't like the taste."

Millions of people have food allergies, and peanut allergy is considered the most dangerous, with life-threatening reactions possible from trace amounts. It accounts for most of the 30,000 emergency-room visits and up to 200 deaths attributed to food allergies each year. Although some children outgrow peanut allergy, that's rare among the severely affected.