Like any parent whose child has multiple and life-threatening food allergies, I scrutinize any pronouncements of treatments through the lens of my child's body. Food allergies are chronic and lifelong, with the possibility but not the promise, of outgrowth. So with each new therapy for anaphylactic food allergies, therapies like oral immunotherapy, I ask myself questions like, "How long would he need to do this?" And, "What effects will it have, if any, on his growing body?"
Researchers in a pre-clinical study at Northwestern University have developed a brand new approach to food allergy treatment. The National Institutes of Health and the Food Allergy Initiative funded the study. In it, peanut tolerance was achieved when researchers attached peanut proteins onto blood cells and re-introduced those cells into mouse models that mimicked life-threatening peanut allergies.
The food allergy reaction is a "learned response," meaning our bodies program themselves to overreact to particular food proteins. The process, in which an antibody, called an IgE antibody, that is supposed to fight infections like parasites, instead recognizes certain food proteins as abnormal invaders within the body. When the IgE antibody goes into defense mode, it tells the body to release histamines and other chemical mediators that can cause a progressive and sometimes life threatening body reaction. (Click here for an animated explanation.)
But after being infused with particular white blood cells that already had peanut proteins attached to them, the mice did not have life threatening reactions to peanuts they ingested. Why? Their immune system was tricked into recognizing the peanut protein as normal -- a friend rather than foe. Even better, Paul Bryce, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of allergy-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and co-senior author of this study, thinks that more than one food protein can be attached to the surface of the white blood cell, possibly targeting multiple food allergies at one time. Moreover, this treatment may re-balance the defensive allergic immune system by "turning on" cells that regulate and calm our bodies. Historically, other food allergy treatments were designed to either block biological responses or to build biological tolerance to one food allergen at a time, over a longer period of time.
It's too soon to draw conclusions regarding the risks or side effects of this new food allergy treatment on the human immunological system. As a parent who fantasizes about a day when my son will wake up able to safely eat foods like cheese or salmon, I hope this medical breakthrough brings just that one "trick."