A group of children with peanut allergy no longer have to worry about severe immune reactions after taking part in the world’s first successful peanut desensitisation programme. The research, carried out at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, involved the patients eating daily doses of peanut flour.
World-first desensitisation therapy is ‘cure’ for severe peanut allergy
At the start, all of them risked a trip to A&E if they encountered a peanut – but by starting with a tiny five milligram serving and slowly building up over six months, they trained their bodies to tolerate at least 800 milligrams: 160 times the starting dose, and equivalent to five whole peanuts.
Dr Andy Clark, who led the research, says: “Every time people with a peanut allergy eat something, they’re frightened that it might kill them. Our motivation was to find a treatment that would change that and give them the confidence to eat what they like. It’s all about quality of life.
“Peanut allergy is common – it affects 1 in 50 young people in the UK – and unlike other childhood food allergies like cow’s milk, it rarely goes away. For all our participants, a reaction could lead to life-threatening anaphylactic shock – but now we’ve got them to a point where they can safely eat at least 10 whole peanuts. It’s not a permanent cure, but as long as they go on taking a daily dose they should maintain their tolerance.”
Nine-year-old Michael Frost was one of the first participants in the programme, and has been severely allergic to peanuts since he was a baby. His mother Kate says she’s still trying to come to terms with the trial’s success: “It’s very hard to describe how much of a difference it’s made – not just in Michael’s life, but for all of us. A peanut allergy affects the whole family. You can’t go out to a restaurant. If your child goes to a birthday party, he takes a packed lunch. When he goes out, you lose control of what he eats – and for so many years, I’ve had a permanent knot of anxiety in my stomach. Suddenly, those feelings have gone.”
Michael is celebrating his tenth birthday next month with a trip to a Chinese restaurant: the first time in his life that his parents have let him eat the food that used to be so risky.
Previous peanut allergy desensitisation programmes in the 1990s produced serious side-effects and were not successful. These attempts used peanut injections rather than the more gentle oral doses tested in the Addenbrooke’s study, and doctors say that difference may have played a role in the making the new approach so much more effective.
Four patients took part in the initial research, which is published this week by the journal Allergy, and a further 18 children aged 7-17 are now successfully following the programme. All the original patients are now eating at least five peanuts a day to help their body maintain its ability to tolerate the food, and with doses that large both they and their families know that they can live a normal life and be safe – even if they eat a peanut by accident.
Researchers say there is no reason why the programme can’t be extended to include adults – so with appropriate medical treatment, a previously untreatable and potentially fatal allergy could become a thing of the past for thousands of the UK’s most severely-affected patients.
The study was carried out in the hospital’s Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, and was sponsored by the Evelyn Trust, a Cambridge charity that supports medical research.
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Cambridge University Hospitals is one of the largest and best known trusts in the country. As the local hospital for our community we deliver care through Addenbrooke’s and the Rosie hospitals.