Food allergy treatment shows promise
July 18th, 2012
06:00 PM ET

Food allergy treatment shows promise

With food allergies still on the rise and no clear answer about their causes, parents of allergic children anxiously await the development of an effective treatment to prevent life-threatening reactions.

Researchers are making progress with a method for helping children with food allergies develop a tolerance for foods they otherwise couldn't eat.  The technique is called immunotherapy.  The basic idea is to give an allergic child extremely small quantities of the allergen and increase the dosage over time.

A new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is particularly exciting because it followed children with an egg allergy for one year after they stopped receiving immunotherapy treatment and found some success in that group.  But more than half of the children did not show this immunity and doctors still don't know why.

"It really does give us great hope that there can be a treatment developed in the future," said Dr. Wesley Burks, chairman of the department of pediatrics at UNC School of Medicine and chief physician at North Carolina Children's Hospital.

About 4% to 6% of children in the United States have food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Some will outgrow their allergies, but others - especially children who are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish - will likely have to avoid certain foods for life.  If they don't, they risk reactions ranging from mild itching and hives to airway blockages and even death. (Here are tips for managing food allergies).

Food allergy help for grown-ups

The immunotherapy approach has already been tried with peanuts and milk in small trials.

In this new study, researchers examined 55 children between ages 5 and 11 who were allergic to eggs.  Forty of them received immunotherapy (controlled doses of egg white powder) and 15 of them received a placebo treatment.

By 22 months of treatment, 75% of kids who got the immunotherapy were considered "desensitized" to eggs.

Researchers found that 10 kids who had undergone the immunotherapy were eating eggs on their own a year after the treatment ended, without symptoms.  This was out of an initial group of 30 who took the treatment and could pass a food challenge (eating egg without incident) after 22 months of therapy.

It's important to note, however, that about 15% of kids receiving the immunotherapy treatment dropped out of the trial - mostly because of allergic reactions, according to the study.  Before this method could become the standard of care, doctors must further investigate what are the risks of undergoing treatment compared with just trying to live with the allergy and avoiding the offending food, the authors wrote.   And the study authors can't totally rule out the possibility that some children were in the process of naturally outgrowing their egg allergies.

This is the largest blind, multisite trial of this kind, and the first to look at what happens after the treatment is over for such a significant period of time, Burks said.

Ruslan Medzhitov, professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, called this study a "very important investment" because it's moving toward a treatment.  He believes it could become a standard of care if researchers figure out why some children respond perfectly to immunotherapy and others don't, and whether the outcome is truly a long-term immune tolerance of allergens.

It’ll be another five to 10 years before this kind of thing could be widely available, Burks says.

In the meantime, don’t try this at home.  This procedure was done in a medical setting under tightly controlled conditions; parents should not attempt to inoculate their own allergic children against potentially deadly foods.

Eggs can be hidden in all sorts of food products, which is why parents of children with this allergy need to be extremely cautious because even a single bite of a cooked egg can trigger a severe allergic reaction in some children.

"It’s a huge strain on a family’s quality of life because there’s always this worry, no matter where you are or what you’re doing: I hope my child is safe," says Dr. Ruchi Gupta, assistant professor of pediatrics and health services researcher at Northwestern University and Children's Memorial Hospital. (Gupta is not related to CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.)

Gupta's 6-year-old daughter is allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. There's always a fear that she might accidentally ingest a problematic food when she's at camp or school, Gupta said.

"Having something like immunotherapy, where I feel like she could start on small doses and gradually work her way up, would be amazing," Gupta said.

UNC Healthcare will host a live Facebook chat about the study on Tuesday, July 24 at 12:30 p.m. ET.

To learn more about joining a study on immunotherapy go to clinicaltrials.gov.

Do you or your child suffer from food allergies? Share your comments below.

soundoff (155 Responses)
  1. Kerry

    Naturopaths have been doing this for years. Nothing new here. It's just that main stream is finally looking at alternatives when doctors can't cure. It's about time. Doctors have their limitations. Best to have a naturopath as well and a good health store near by for a second and third opinion.

    July 24, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pam

      Kerry, that was exactly what I was thinking when I started reading this article. Doctors have been performing immunotherapy for a long time. I was getting shots 10 years ago to create a tolerance for many of the things I'm allergic to. Didn't work worth a darn. The doctor then told me "Sometimes it can take 2-3 years of shots to see a difference"...LoL! Then I said "So then I should keep coming in and giving you my money for the next 2-3 years? Sounds like a great deal for you".

      March 14, 2013 at 22:33 | Report abuse |
  2. Karen

    Agree. Old news. Doesn't work for most full-time allergics.

    July 25, 2012 at 02:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lyle Kaczor

    Food allergies are quite annoying because it restricts you to eat some of your favorite foods. I like seafoods but i am also allergic to it at the same time. ,.'`,

    Yours trully http://healthmedicinelab.com/what-do-bed-bug-bites-look-like/

    August 6, 2012 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. DS

    The most important thing is to carry Epis at all times! We can cut the fatalities from food allergies in half. http://www.facebook.com/rescueshotcase

    August 7, 2012 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Juanita

    Although I had heard of allergies I had never really thought of them as life threatening. I always thought of allergies as a temporary reaction to something a person was allergic. My first exposure to how deadly allergies could be, came when I was in the 4th grade. A new boy was admitted to my class in the middle of the year and he was accompanied by his mom who told us he was severely allergic to peanuts and cautioned us to keep our distance from him whenever we ate anything that contained peanuts. I had never even thought about what was in the food I ate at lunch but after that, I started asking my mom about the ingredients in my food. One day, somebody brought in food that was cooked in peanut oil. Charles just took a bite but his reaction was severe, quick and scary. Luckily he had his shot with him and he was okay but it was a scary incident and I know I will never think of lightly of allergies again. Allergic Reaction

    August 8, 2012 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Gratefulfoodie

    ...all steps forward in finding treatments and cures...

    August 31, 2012 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. ryandixon110

    Reblogged this on burgernobun and commented:
    Was reading this article today and thought I would try re-blogging it to see what would happen. I find this way more exciting than it really is.

    September 25, 2012 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. h sutherland MD

    As a retired board certified allergist, this was an interesting article When i was practicing, food allergy shots were not used and considred dangerous. The reason that some patients respond and others do not may be due the the fact that all potential allergens in a food may not be covered. Most foods have many different properties. Egg is a good example having at least four major allergens. Egg sensitivity is important because it is in many vaccines. The amount of egg is in the range of one part per million which should not be a cause of reactions making these vaccines safe.
    An interesting thought– Sublingual treatment was considered quackery in my day, might be found useful after all.

    March 18, 2013 at 16:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. DD

    I developed allergies a few years ago in my early forties. The only thing that worked for me was acupuncture. I went to someone who specialized in NAET treatment. It worked and I no longer after to do daily shots of Benadryl. I still carry it as well as an epi pen but I haven't had to use either of them in 3 years. Eastern medicine is so much more advanced. American doctors just want to give you a prescription or a shot and think that's going to make it better. Look up NAET and find a practioner in your area. It worked for me and I was a sceptic before I started the treatment, but Western meds didn't work for me and I was desperate for help. Yes, you will find nay Sayers who will write negative thing about NAET. I did find that those people had never tried it and they were still saying negative things.

    March 21, 2013 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. AC

    After having my daughter first react at 3 years old, I had idiot doctors telling me to remove all nuts from my house; When the reaction was caused by her ingesting a handful of nuts. She was tested and diagnosed with level 4 allergy to tree nuts.
    I did the opposite. I kept nuts in the house. Well knowing that the only measure I had to take was preventing her from eating nuts. Getting an Epi pen, and educating/training her in a very disciplined manner. at 7 , she can now eat peanut butter.
    Having nuts in the house exposed her in very small amounts over the years. Removing them would have prevented this small exposure. We idiot humans are causing this by creating 100% allergy free environments thus preventing our immune systems from developing normally. When it wasn't the 1% peanut molecule floating in the air that caused the reaction, it was the 100% peanut that was ingested that caused it! From experience, I knew this as I was highly allergic at an early age in the 70's and there were no allergy free zones or foods back then. You just dealt with it, took an antihistamine when you had a bad reaction, then outgrew it by being repeatedly accidentally exposed

    March 24, 2013 at 11:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ECT

    Allergy immunotherapy can work very well. Iam an example. I suffered from allergies for years and had injections, but it was not completely effective until a new allergist decided to raise the dose of serum in the injections very gradually over time to a much higher level, as I could tolerate it. I used to get asthma attacks just standing by people who had pets at home–not even with them. Now I don,t react at all, and just get the injections once a month. I hope that similar therapy can be developed for food allergies.

    April 19, 2013 at 23:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Lisa Furlong

    My son and I experience allergy to wheat (gluten). He experiences gluten ataxia. Four years ago he began to lose the use of his left eye, had rashes, loss of congnitive function, clumsiness, small motor skills were deteriorating. We knew he had allergies and he was taking medication and sublingual immunotherapy yet remained very sick. We stopped the sublingual therapy because it didn't seem to afford benefit to him. His decline continued until I removed wheat completely. From his food, lotions, soaps, shampoos etc. He was fine when home, fine most of the time but consistently became sick at school. Ultimately I resorted to Home Bound instruction. The school cannot keep him safe (his school does have a great policy and procedure and understanding of peanuts). The school, his pediatrician, the administration of the schools etc. have all worked with me to keep him safe. We would like to be able to send him to school – he needs the socialization, but he is safe at home. I continue to seek alternate education environments for him. I hope that soon he could participate in online classes where he feels part of a group. It's a tough thing. I do not work full-time, I wish I could, I don't want to just leave him home all day alone so I try to make being at home as much of an advantage for him as I can.

    April 21, 2013 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Taneka Buttino

    If you have an allergy, your body is reacting to something you inhaled, touched or ate. The substances that trigger an allergic reaction are called allergens. Reactions to these allergens range from annoying to life-threatening.Many people with untreated allergy symptoms aren't aware of how much better they can feel once their symptoms are properly diagnosed and managed by an allergist / immunologist, often referred to as an allergist.

    June 7, 2013 at 05:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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  16. jen hunt

    thank you for posting Dr.Rapp.I have read most of your books and was a patient of Dr Leonard Newtons
    before he died..how do we find an allergist with your knowledge? I'm finding all allergist are not the same.
    My heart goes out to all of you parents with children that have a life-threatening allergy.My son is allergic to
    Malt and yellow dye. He becomes bipolar and his normally sunny disposition becomes just horrible for him and others
    around him. I worried about suicide. Because these things are in so many foods and drinks it becomes difficult even reading labels. I would love to find an allergist that could help with desensitizing him. We are in the Finger Lakes in New York State.
    Anyone know of a good environmental allergist in my area. Thanks and my prayers go out to all of you

    March 2, 2015 at 05:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ashley

    I have a son who is severely allergic to cow milk proteins. We found this out at 5 months of age and I've not seen any improvements in this. However, he does have multiple other allergies–some of which he's not sensitive anymore. Thank god. But I worry about his development and the possibility of having to shelter him from school and other amazing life experiences. He's now 2. I hope there is a cure soon!

    March 26, 2015 at 16:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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