Although it isn’t an issue that is normally spoken about, I’ve seen firsthand how lives can be dramatically warped by America’s favorite nut. More than 3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts, and reactions can range from skin rashes to death.
Peanuts have been found to cause the majority of deaths in the U.S. from anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reaction. Allergic reactions can occur from eating peanuts or from even the slightest exposure to peanuts in some individuals. But hope is on the horizon. Researchers and scientists have found a way to “turn off” life-threatening allergic reactions to peanuts and possibly other foods by playing a trick on the immune system. This trick could be the key to saving millions of lives and improving the quality of life for many peanut allergy sufferers.
Peanut allergy is the most common cause of food related death in Americans. 90% of those suffering from food allergies suffer from an allergy to 1 of 8 foods. A peanut allergy is the most prevalent and dangerous of these 8 foods. 4% – 8% of U.S. children are allergic to peanuts. Peanuts are a seriously underestimated danger.
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New research done at the Northwestern University suggests that despite its prevalence, this peanut allergy may become a thing of the past. Dr. Stephen Miller and Dr. Paul Bryce, professors and researchers at Northwestern University pioneered the study. According to an October 2011 article from Northwestern University, they were inspired by Dr. Miller’s research on Multiple Sclerosis. Using mice as models, Miller hit on the idea of taking blood from a mouse with MS symptoms, attaching myelin protein to certain white blood cells, and infusing the blood back into the mouse’s bloodstream. According to Dr. Miller,
The idea is to convince the patient’s immune system that the myelin is not dangerous and to turn off its attack.
This same method could be applied to their research on peanut allergy relief. Dr.Bryce developed lab mice that were sensitive to peanuts and would suffer the same reactions as allergic humans — hives, swelling and, in more severe cases, constriction of breathing, plummeting blood pressure and shock that can lead to loss of consciousness and death. In their experiments, Bryce and Miller drew blood from their peanut allergic mice and attached peanut protein to white blood cells. They then infused the blood back into the mice and fed them peanut extracts that normally would set off severe allergic reactions. The results were more than they could have hoped for: The system increases the number of regulatory T cells in the mouse with the peanut allergy while “turning off” other cells that cause the peanut allergy, restoring tolerance to peanuts to the immune system.
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Despite this major breakthrough in the battle against the peanut allergy, many sectors of our community continue to establish new rules and regulations that are meant to control and monitor exposure to peanuts. For example, more schools than ever are banning peanuts and peanut products as the number of kids diagnosed with the potentially life-threatening peanut allergy has climbed dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2002, the rates of peanut allergies in children under age five doubled, and consequently, 30,000 schools in America are now “peanut free”.
Despite this, there is still a tried and true convenience factor when it comes to peanut butter and kids. When busy parents are affected by an allergy that belongs to neither them nor their child, it is difficult to see the necessity of the rules against peanuts and peanut butter. Parents continue to ask, should one child’s allergy affect another child’s lunch? That is what school districts across the country are trying to establish.
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Schools are not the only area of society to be affected by the consequences of possible exposure to peanuts in allergy sufferers. The debate has actually gone above and beyond us…literally. Federal regulators have considered banning peanuts and peanut products on flights. The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities by U.S. and foreign air carriers, and the Department of Transportation requires airlines to accommodate travelers with disabilities unless doing this would cause an “undue burden” or require the airline to “fundamentally alter its services”. The Department of Transportation believes that a severe peanut allergy counts as a disability — and federal law prohibits air carriers from discriminating against individuals with a disability. Therefore, further research is being done so the Department of Transportation can conclude whether they are really honoring a disability, or whether not serving nut products on flights is fundamentally altering its services. Schools and airlines represent just a few examples of how we are all affected by peanut allergies, whether we actually have one or not.
This may seem like a lot of input from “the peanut gallery”, but these debates prove that in a way, we are all peanut allergy sufferers, so the future implications of being able to “turn off” a peanut allergy mean something to the way we all live our lives. Despite the ground breaking research that has been done on how to lessen the negative effects of peanut exposure, results may be far off. According to Dr. Paul Bryce,
we… think we have recalibrated the immune system, but we’re still trying to understand how it works. Researchers say we are looking at three-five years before this approach can actually be tested on humans.
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If the peanut allergy treatment works on humans, it’s likely the method could also be applied to the growing list of food allergies and to autoimmune diseases. Another method for curing the peanut allergy is also in the early stages of development at the New England Food Allergy Treatment Center.
The method called Oral Immunotherapy, involves the patient actually eating small amounts of nuts in a controlled setting. The author of the study, Dr. Scott Nash of Duke University, says the treatment includes three phases: one day in the medical center, with increasing doses given throughout the day; a home phase lasting three or four months that involve daily, escalating doses; and a home maintenance phase in which the daily dose is 300 milligrams, about the equivalent of one peanut. At the end of the study, Nash’s team gave patients a “food challenge” with peanut flour, exposing them to the equivalent of more than 13 peanuts.
The goal of immunotherapy is for the allergy to go away, but more research is needed. Nash says patients are now at reduced risk for anaphylaxis. It isn’t a cure to the peanut allergy, but it’s not peanuts, either! In fact, according to the results, immunotherapy increased the quality of life for every single person that has participated in the therapy. New methods such as these are just the beginning of a new life for food and peanut allergy sufferers and a new beginning for how society handles the peanut allergy.
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Do you remember that song? “It’s peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time!” Well thanks to new studies and technology, we’ll be able to have peanut butter jelly time no matter who is around, whether they’re a peanut allergy sufferer or not. Schools will lift their ban on peanuts and peanut butter; airlines may be able to have an allergy sufferer sit next to a non allergy sufferer; and we will finally be able to do away with any type of food allergy fear once and for all.