Peanut allergy is tough nut to crack

Researchers racing to turn the legume into food all can eat

August 08, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN REPORTER

They are on a quest to build a better peanut, one safe enough to spread on the sandwich of even the most allergic child.

With peanut allergies on the rise, the race is on in laboratories, farm fields and medical clinics. Nobody has broken through, but promising research is being done on several fronts as scientists try to turn the potentially lethal legume into something everyone can eat.

"A lot of people are starting to try to get into the field because of the urgency," said Soheila J. Maleki, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Orleans.

Some researchers, like Maleki, are digging into the genetics of the peanut, trying to breed a harmless variety. Other scientists are treating the peanuts after they have been pulled from the ground, trying to erase what makes some people so sick.

Doctors and parents of allergic children say none of this is likely to assuage the fear that a child could end up in the emergency room after ingesting even trace amounts of the chemicals tucked into the proteins of the legume. Instead, they would prefer the focus be on finding a cure for the allergy, one that could be in its early stages in the form of a vaccine to be tested next year.

Some figures have shown that food allergies - peanuts included - have doubled or tripled in the past decade. One of every 100 children in the United States has a peanut allergy. Some will outgrow it, but there are many adults who are also forced to stay away from peanuts.

The reasons for the increase have eluded doctors. Meanwhile, interest in learning as much as possible about peanut allergies has grown. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases nearly quadrupled the amount spent on peanut allergy research in the past five years to $3.5 million last year. In 2005, the institute established a food allergy consortium, promising to spend roughly $17 million through 2010, with a peanut initiative as its first project.

A decade ago, there was little help for parents whose children were found to be allergic to peanuts; now they have support groups, Internet chat rooms and social networks to navigate everything from which restaurants are safe to how to teach your kindergartner to carry a life-saving dose of a form of adrenaline. Food labels didn't always divulge every ingredient inside the box, but today it's no longer a deadly guessing game as to whether peanuts or their residue might be surprise ingredients in unlikely food products.

Lissa Roberts is enthusiastic about the latest research but skeptical. Her 7-year-old daughter, Reagan, is off-the-charts allergic to peanuts, milk and eggs.

"I think it's really neat that people are exploring options," the Ellicott City woman said, "but I don't think it does anything for us because they can't guarantee it won't be free of [all allergens] and that's too big a risk for us.

"I love that people are trying to find ways to solve this problem because it's hard to live this way."

Roberts must be hyper-vigilant about everything her daughter eats. It's especially hard when Reagan leaves the house. There is always a chance that she will eat something that will trigger a frightening allergic response.

Peanuts can cause an overreaction of the immune system that can keep someone from being able to breathe. While other food allergies, such as milk and egg, are more common, peanut allergies are considered among the most dangerous because of the severity of the reactions. Food allergies cause roughly 125 deaths a year, the majority of which are blamed on peanuts.

Mohamed Ahmedna, a food scientist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, has been in the news after claiming that he has found a way to eliminate all traces of allergen from harvested peanuts. The university announced the feat late last month without disclosing proof.

Ahmedna had been working on ways to make use of the residue of peanuts after they are pressed for oil. He had developed antioxidants from peanut skins that can be put into food supplements, a low-fat, high-protein meat substitute from de-fatted peanut flour and even an infant formula for developing countries.

But the entire endeavor was limited because of the growing incidence of peanut allergy. Ahmedna and his colleagues have been experimenting with different methods - enzymes, fermentation and more - to make peanuts allergen-free. He won't disclose the successful method other than to say it is "food-grade," meaning safe to eat.

In the lab, treated peanuts are missing 100 percent of the allergens, he said. They taste and look like standard peanuts, and he said that his technique can be easily incorporated into peanut butter processing, for instance. But they have not been tested in animals or in people, something that postpones any appearance on shelves for years.

"We can't claim it's allergen-free until it's proven in humans," he said.

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