Peanut Problems

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Peanut allergy has become a serious problem in the last few decades. It has become so bad that there is a push to have epipens available in schools and kinders to treat any child who may have a bad reaction to any trace of a peanut. There may be some hope of counteracting this as researchers at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute say that they have developed a treatment that could provide a cure.

The treatment involves a fixed, daily dose of a probiotic, Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, along with increasing amounts of a peanut protein, given fortnightly. The peanut protein was increased in small doses until it reached the maintenance level of 2 grams. L. Rhamnosus was considered a subspecies of L. Casei which is common in probiotic yoghurts and other dairy products. It is now considered a separate species. It was originally taken and cultured from a healthy, human digestive system.

 

In the trial 60 children were divided into two groups – one group was given the experimental treatment and the other was given a placebo. After the treatment was finished a “peanut challenge” was held to see how each child now reacted to peanuts. All this was held under very careful medical supervision as peanut allergies can be fatal. Even if it is not fatal, it is very distressing to see the sad, swollen face of a child with an allergic reaction. If this procedure works it will be a great improvement on the alternate test which has more risks for the children and is more time consuming. It also involves needles which children (and some adults) dislike.

 

After the trial 80% of the children who received the probiotic and the peanut protein were assessed as being able to tolerate peanuts. The 80% success rate is considered to be 20 times higher than the usual rate of resolution for peanut allergies. There is the curious case of one child from the placebo group also being assessed as being able to tolerate peanuts. Were they misdiagnosed to start with or were they just very susceptible to the placebo effect?

 

Professor Mimi Tang, who is the head researcher on this study at the Murdoch Institute said that the results were extremely exciting. She said that “it appears that we have been able to modify the allergic response to peanut such that the immune system produces protective responses rather than a harmful response to the peanut protein.”

 

Further research is needed, both to confirm the results using a larger and more varied group and also to find out whether the beneficial effects will last. There is some evidence that L. Rhamnosus may only take temporary residence in the gut. This may lead to the need to keep taking the probiotic. There is also the risk that L. Rhamnosus may, in rare circumstances, be pathogenic in those with low immunity, such as infants. Infants are not likely to allowed into any experimental trials but an adult with a stressed out immune system may be at risk.

By Mary McConville

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