In recent years the number of American children with milk, egg and peanut allergies has been rising. Many of these children also experience allergic reactions more often and more severe than expected. But a promising new therapy called oral immunotherapy could eliminate these allergies in children.
A cure for food allergies?
According to a new study on the effects of oral immunotherapy—taking small doses of an allergen in larger and larger quantities to condition the immune system—about 4 percent of children in the U.S. suffer from food allergies. Food allergy reactions often include an irritating skin rash but sometimes they can be fatal. Many children outgrow their sensitivity to food allergies, but some people live with them forever.
Until now, simply avoiding foods such as milk, eggs and peanuts has been the only option for people with food allergies—a risky existence that can limit the nutrients in their diet. But research on egg allergy shows that immunotherapy may be able to free people with food allergies from their condition.
Beating egg allergy
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from the University of North Carolina found that eating small amounts of egg for several months lowered the allergic reaction in some children and virtually eliminated it in others.
Researchers recruited 55 families with children and teens allergic to eggs. Parents were given either the equivalent of one-third of an egg in powder form, or a placebo to mix into their children’s food. After 10 months, 55 percent of the children eating the powdered eggs were able to ingest a whole egg in powder with either no allergic reaction or mild to moderate symptoms, which subsided with no treatment.
After 22 months of oral immunotherapy, 75 percent of the children who were successfully desensitized were able to eat two whole eggs with no symptoms. A period of 4 to 6 weeks of avoiding all egg consumption followed, then they were tested again. Twenty-eight percent were able to sustain their desensitization to eggs.
At 30 and 36 months, all of the children who sustained their desensitization were able to eat eggs as they pleased, with no adverse affects. But based on the trial, researchers said it could be likely the allergy may return if they stopped eating eggs for a prolonged period.
Promise for peanut allergy
In previous studies, the North Carolina researchers tested oral immunotherapy on children with milk and peanut allergies. They found that after 48 weeks of immunotherapy, children with peanut allergy could eat 20 peanuts safely. But lead researcher Dr. Wesley Burks said 5 to 10 more years of clinical trials will be necessary before oral immunotherapy could be a standard treatment for food allergies.
Don’t try this at home
Issues to be addressed include defining the risks of oral immunotherapy compared to current methods of allergen avoidance and elimination. A standard means for identifying patients most likely to benefit from the treatment, as well as ideal dosing regimens must also be determined. Most importantly, strategies that ensure the allergies don’t return in the future must be developed.
The Holy Grail
Dr. Tania Mucci, an allergist at Winthrop University Hospital in New York, told ABC News that immunotherapy has cured 75 percent of patients with allergies to grasses, trees, cats and dogs. She said if oral immunotherapy could become standardized and safe it would be the “Holy Grail” for people with food allergies.