In the News - Peanut Allergy Cure?

Today at work, in my daily scroll through health-related news articles, I came across this article in Time magazine, which claimed that they had found a cure for peanut allergies.

This is huge. I can’t imagine life without peanut butter and I’ve often joked that if I ever had a kid with a deadly peanut allergy I’d have to give up the kid.

Okay, that’s a joke. I would never give up my kid for anything short of chocolate (okay, okay, I’ll stop). But peanut allergies suck, and they are becoming increasingly common...as are other allergies.

According the magazine article, a group of Australian researchers found great success in administering a probiotic supplement to kids with peanut allergies, that contained tiny amounts of peanuts. Four years later, 67% of the children treated with the probiotic + peanuts were able to eat peanuts comfortably.

Time magazine is usually pretty good about reporting objectively on science studies, and author is conscientious about cautioning readers that this is just one study, and might not give the whole picture of what happened. She also cites the original scientific article - you can read the summary by clicking on this link or read the whole thing if you make a (free) account with The Lancet. It’s not a terribly long article, but I have broken down the details for you anyway:

Subjects: 56 kids were enrolled, but only 48 were involved in the 4 year follow-up (this isn’t unusual - people commonly drop out of long term studies or forget to pass new contact info onto the researchers). Of the 48, 24 were given probiotics and peanuts, and 24 were given placebos (sugar pills that don’t do anything).

Design: This was a randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind study. This means that neither the people in the study or the researchers working with them directly (such as nurses and doctors) knew if they were getting the real medication or not. Also, the decision over whether to give specific child the placebo or the medication was random - no individual person made that decision. This is super important in research, since it prevents psychological effects and bias from affecting the research. This is important for it to be a good study.

Treatment: The kids were given the medication once per day for 18 months. Yes, 18 months. During this time they were instructed to avoid any non-study probiotics and also avoid eating peanuts.

At the 18 month mark, they were tested to see if they could eat peanuts safely. If they good, they were tested again six weeks later.

The kids who could eat the peanuts were told to eat peanuts if they wanted. They other kids were told to keep avoiding peanuts. They were given questionnaires to monitor how many peanuts they ate and how often they ate them.

Data:
  • 20/24 of the group receiving treatment were unresponsive to peanut at the end of the initial trial (18-month period).
  • 16/24 (67%) of the group who received treatment were still eating peanuts regularly after four years, compared with 1/24 (4%) of the placebo group. 12 of these were ingesting moderate-large amounts of peanuts.
  • 4/20 of children who received treatment and didn’t have allergy symptoms at 18 months were NOT eating peanuts after four years. One of these reported that he/she didn’t like the taste of peanuts, two started experiencing allergy symptoms again within 24 months of stopping the medication, and one stopped eating peanuts for non-allergy related personal reasons.
  • Tests for the antibodies that cause the peanut allergies were performed. Statistically, these antibiotics were lower in the treatment group than the placebo group.

Conclusions:
  • Significantly more treated people were able to ingest peanuts after treatment than placebo people → this indicates that the treatment works, to some extent
  • Larger studies are needed and longer-term studies are needed to evaluate saftey and long term effectiveness

My Thoughts:
This is an impressively good study compared to what is frequently advertised in the mainstream media! Their methods were solid, there weren’t any financial conflicts of interest (that I could find), and the participation rate was fairly high. The increasingly recognized importance of gut health, combined with the classic idea of removing allergies by miniscule exposure to the allergen (such as with allergy shots) is really, really, really cool. Some people are blaming the increase in food allergies on poor gut health, caused by poor diet (vegetable oil! Sugar! Chemicals! Whee!), but even the most natural, nutrition-conscious, back-to-nature people on the Internet can’t seem to actually reverse food allergies, at least not in a consistent way, by fixing their diets. Finding a way to do this could have a huge impact on the quality of life of allergy sufferers, and also open the door to using probiotics for other uses in conventional medicine.

They definitely need to repeat this (probably many times), and they need to get a larger sample size, but as a preliminary study, this looks really good. With more participants, I’d also like to see some groups that ONLY receive small amounts of peanuts or ONLY receive small amounts of probiotics to see if the two things are really needed in combination.

TL:DR: There’s this really cool new idea for combining probiotics and tiny amounts of peanuts to reverse peanut allergies! It needs more research, but seems really promising with a study they just did in Australia!

Disclaimer: Do NOT try this at home! You do not have the ability to get the correct safe dose of these ingredients, and the treatment has not been adequately tested!

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