It may just be that the best way to treat a peanut allergy is to make the affected kids eat peanuts. It sounds like a horribly-thought-out lunchtime prank (like the one that saw an eighth-grader arrested in 2008 for planting peanut butter cookie crumbs in his classmate's lunch), but it turns out that feeding kids increasing quantities of peanut proteins — in this case, peanut flour — might just help them "cure" the allergy. The study was published in the Lancet medical journal Thursday.
Because allergy shots are too risky for the delicate condition, researchers had to be clever about their approach. The study involved feeding the peanut flour to 99 peanut-allergic children, starting with 2 mg quantities mixed in with their foods. At the end of six months, when the quantity had been increased to 800 mg, researchers determined via allergy tests that the tactics carried an 85-percent success rate: The kids' immune systems had virtually been "retrained" to accept peanuts by building up a tolerance to them.
"This is huge – it’s a real first," said study leader Andrew Clarke. "The families involved say that it has changed their lives dramatically ... Before the study, they could not even tolerate tiny bits of peanuts and their parents had to read food labels continuously."
Granted, tolerance of 800 mg means they can only eat five peanuts a day without consequence. But the study's not meant to be getting the kids hooked on peanut brittle: Instead, it's a way to build tolerance enough so that the allergy is no longer life-threatening if peanuts are indeed ingested. It's an important step in combatting a peanut-allergy epidemic that affects 1 in 50 children already. Despite most of the allergy-sufferers coming from high-income nations, the allergy is affecting more and more kids worldwide — and unlike most food allergies, kids don't really tend to grow out of this one.
"The fantastic results of this study exceed expectation," said Allery UK director of clinical services Maureen Jenkins. "Peanut allergy is a particularly frightening food allergy, causing constant anxiety of a reaction from peanut traces. This is a major step forward in the global quest to manage it."
The treatment's on the fast-track in the UK and could soon be available on the NHS plan. Experts are, however, warning that more research is needed (for example, no one knows yet if the tolerance is permanent) and that under no circumstances should parents adopt this as a DIY approach to getting little Danny to overcome his allergy.
It's all sort of like the "tolerance" Vizzini built up in the Princess Bride, but in this case, it seems like it actually works.