Food Allergies: Hope for a New Treatment or Cure
Allergic to eggs? A little egg might eventually be just what the doctor orders. Duke and University of Arkansas researchers report in the online edition of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that a small pilot study exposing seven kids with egg allergies to minuscule amounts of powdered egg whites and then gradually increasing exposure over a two-year period caused most of them to develop enough resistance to eat the equivalent of two scrambled eggs without a reaction. All of the study participants gained some degree of protection.
"This is not something I would want people to try at home," says lead researcher Wesley Burks, a pediatrician at Duke University Medical Center. That's because in some cases egg allergies can cause severe reactions and, occasionally, even death. But Burks believes that oral immunotherapy, as the technique is called, could lead to effective new treatments or even a cure for certain food allergies. That would come as a welcome relief to the 3.7 percent of the American population with food allergies, many of whom report significant decreases in their quality of life due to the condition.
In this study, the team studied only kids who lacked a history of severe reactions, increased the doses gradually in tiny increments, and carefully monitored participants for adverse reactions. Additional studies, some of which are already in progress, will evaluate the technique in a more rigorous way. A National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases research consortium is currently working on a larger study with more than 60 participants. And Burks is testing the same technique with peanuts, which tend to cause more dangerous reactions than eggs.
At this point, the mechanism behind oral immunotherapy is not fully understood, but Burks theorizes the increasing exposure to the allergen causes changes in the functioning of T lymphocytes, cells which play an important role in the body's immune response.