In recent years, peanut allergies have become a kind of comic short-hand for the failings of modern helicopter parenting. But the allergy is no laughing matter; people die from exposure to peanuts every year and many more of the self-reported .6-1.3 percent of Americans that are allergic to peanuts end up in the emergency room. So a new treatment developed by the National Institutes of Health for combating peanut allergies is a big deal.
According to a press release, after a one-year trial of a new skin patch, which patients apply daily to their arm or between their shoulder blades, study volunteers were able to orally consume at least 10 times the amount of peanut protein as they could before the test without setting off an immune response. The 74 participants received either a high-dose of peanut proteins in their patch (250 micrograms), a low-dose (100 micrograms) or a placebo. In the low-dose group, 46 percent of participants saw benefits compared to 48 percent in the high dose group and 12 percent of placebo recipients.
The greatest benefits were to participants between the ages of 4 and 11, while the benefits for people over the age of 12 were much less. The study is detailed in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
“The clinical benefit seen in younger children highlights the promise of this innovative approach to treating peanut allergy,” Daniel Rotrosen, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation, says in the press release. “Epicutaneous immunotherapy aims to engage the immune system in the skin to train the body to tolerate small amounts of allergen, whereas other recent advances have relied on an oral route that appears difficult for approximately 10 to 15 percent of children and adults to tolerate.”
In fact, the study showed that the patch was easy for participants to use and most of them were able to stick to a daily regimen of using the patch, though it did create a small rash for most participants in the beginning. Despite its promise, the patch still needs to undergo more testing and large scale trials before it is approved for use by the general public.
Until a solution is found, allergy sufferers will need to remain vigilant in avoiding peanuts. According to one study, the prevalence of nut allergies in American children tripled between 1997 and 2008, from .4 percent to 1.4 percent. Reporting for The New York Times, Jane Brody writes that in 2000 doctors began telling pregnant and nursing women to avoid peanut products and to keep children away from peanuts and peanut products until after the age of three. The thinking was that early exposure to peanuts caused allergies to develop. But those measures did not stop allergy rates from climbing, and in 2008 that advice was dropped.
Now, more recent research has completely upended that advice. A 2014 study in JAMA Pediatrics showed that the more nuts a mother ate during the year before and after a pregnancy, the lower her child’s risk for developing nut allergies. Another study published in 2015 that followed children for four years shows that feeding them peanut products, especially in their first year of life, prevents the development of peanut allergies.
It’s not certain whether the rate of peanut allergies will decrease as more parents expose their children to nut proteins early in life or if the increases in allergies over the last few decades have another cause. In either case, there are currently millions of people still in need of treatment.