US researchers are getting closer to figuring out what a ‘cure’ for food allergies might look like
Researchers hope new treatments that target the immune system will lessen the responses to an allergens
By Lydia Ramsey
Allergies are a part of life, popping up at group dinners, in family members, even out of the blue when enjoying fresh produce.
The immune system’s response to a substance that may not be harmful to others, allergies are the sixth-leading cause of chronic disease in the US. More than 50 million Americans have allergies in any given year, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
An estimated four per cent to six per cent of children in the US have food allergies, with peanuts being one of the worst offenders. Roughly 1.5 million children in the US are allergic to peanuts, an allergy that can often be so severe that even the smallest amount of contact can set off an extreme reaction.
It’s something companies are working on to treat, by re-training the body’s immune system not to overreact to peanut protein. That involves re-introducing it to the body, increasing the amount of protein over time. The hope with these treatments is to lessen the responses to an allergen, so instead of really intense reactions, you can take an accidental bite of a peanut-butter laced sandwich and continue your day.
With these advancements in what we know about allergies and how to treat them, it got me thinking: Could we one day cure allergies? The short answer is no, not exactly.
There are a lot of efforts going on to figure out whether the allergy can be prevented by exposing children to peanut proteins at a young age. One major study from the UK found that by eating a peanut-containing snack, infants who were at high risk for developing a peanut allergy were able to prevent developing the allergy. In a study of 600 high risk children, only three per cent of those who were exposed to the snack developed a peanut allergy, compared to 17 per cent of those in the group that avoided peanuts.
But, of course, that still leaves three per cent.
“As we learn more and more about that, and we begin to intervene earlier and earlier, are we going to cure allergy? Probably not, but perhaps in some of those kids but I would doubt in all of them,” Aimmune’s chief medical officer Dr. Dan Adelman, an allergist and immunologist, said. Aimmune is working on an immunotherapy allergy treatment taken via pill, starting with peanut allergies.
“There’s always going to be room for a therapeutic intervention for those who still go on to develop allergy.”
Instead, Aimmune CEO Stephen Dilly envisions a future in which people living with allergies have what’s known as “functional cures.” That is, they’re able to live with the condition impacting their day to day lives too heavily. It might still mean avoiding peanuts or other allergens, but it might mean that the fear of accidentally coming in contact with it doesn’t mean a trip to the emergency room.
Or, for foods that are harder to avoid like milk and eggs — which can negatively impact on a person’s overall nutritional health — it might mean getting to the point where people are able to reintroduce them into their diets.
It’s what Aimmune’s doing with its treatments. Data from the company’s phase 3 trial in peanut allergy is expected to come out in February.
“Can we get to that kind of level? That looks attractive,” Dilly said.
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