FOR THE WEEK OF OCT. 17, 2011
Peanut allergy experiments bring hope for those who must avoid risky foods
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Nut allergies could become a thing of the past, potentially making PB & J safe for about three million Americans -- mostly kids -- who're allergic to peanuts. Scientists have found a way to "turn off" life-threatening reactions to peanuts and other foods by tricking the body's immune system.
Northwestern University medical school researchers in Chicago used mice in a test developed to mimic a life-threatening peanut allergy, one of the most common human food sensitivities (along with milk and eggs). Peanut proteins were attached to the animals' white blood cells and then injected into the mice. The rodents then ate peanut extract, but had no allergic reaction since their cells recognized the peanut protein as safe. "Their immune system saw the peanut protein as perfectly normal," says Dr. Paul Bryce, co-author of a medical journal article about the work.
The studies hold hope for people with food allergies, which can cause rashes, swelling, nausea, stomach pain, anxiety, coughing, nose congestion, breathing difficulty, heart failure and even death in extreme cases. Symptoms can come within minutes or even seconds after eating an allergy-causing substance. The research team is optimistic about human benefits from "an exciting new way in which we can regulate specific allergic diseases," as co-author Stephen Miller put it.
Researcher says: "We think we've found a way to safely and rapidly turn off the allergic response to food allergies." -- Dr. Paul Bryce, assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago
Mom says: "As a parent who fantasizes about a day when my son will wake up able to safely eat foods like cheese or salmon, I hope this medical breakthrough brings [an effective] 'trick.' " -- Susan Weissman, blogging at The Huffington Post
Explaining the allergies: Food allergy occurs when our immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein. Eating a certain food can trigger the sudden release of chemicals, mainly called histamines (HISS-ta-means) that cause an allergic reaction.
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