Human beings have been suffering from allergies since the dawn of time. While they weren’t very common for centuries, there has been a significant increase in allergies in the past few decades. Recent discoveries, however, could change things and pave the way for therapeutic remedies.
Allergies on the rise
Over a quarter million Quebecers suffer from food allergies, that is, 4% of the adult population and 8% of the juvenile population. Alarming fact: this number tends to double every five years.
Allergies are a spontaneous, unusual reaction of the immune system when it comes into direct contact with a pathogen. For reasons that are not fully known, the body has an exaggerated response and produces specific antibodies that cause allergy symptoms, which can sometimes be fatal.
Many are questioning this significant rise in allergies. While they are numerous, the causes of this kind of hypersensitivity are not clearly defined. Recent studies lead us to believe that pollution and changes in the food processing industry could be responsible. Access to prepared meals containing a multitude of processed foods may increase the contact with allergens.
Furthermore, these changes could trigger the mutation of natural molecules in food allergens. What’s more, the combination of these different foods might directly affect the allergic intensity coefficient. According to a study conducted in 2003 by English researchers, combining soy milk with peanuts increases the risk of a peanut allergy by 2.6.
The growing increase could also be explained by any of the following: a massive consumption of antibiotics, a decrease in breast feeding and sterile environments. While microbes normally act as indicators for tolerating foreign agents in the body, their decreased contact with the immune system may cause our immune system get out of sync and fight against usually harmless agents such as food.
Effective treatments on the horizon
Other than avoiding allergenic foods, the EpiPen is the most popular emergency treatment for severe allergic reactions. However, the relief is temporary and researchers are seeking to better understand the allergenic factors involved and develop more permanent treatments, which may not totally eliminate allergy symptoms, but could increase the body’s tolerance.
The year 2017 was prolific in terms of allergy-related scientific discoveries. In the spring, researcher Dr. Lamia L’Hocine, from the Saint-Hyacinthe Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, determined that boiled peanuts contain proteins that break down very quickly in the digestive system compared to roasted peanuts, which have a greater resistance to digestion. Surprisingly, roasted peanuts have shown increased resistance to digestion when mixed with fatty foods and sugar (example: cookie dough).
Despite the fact that these results were obtained in vitro, the findings tend to indicate that boiled peanuts might limit allergic reactions. In fact, allergic reactions go through two distinct, but often corollary phases: direct contact and sensitization of the gastro-intestinal immune system. It could therefore be possible that consuming boiled peanuts could offset the inconveniences caused by reactions in phase 2.
At the same time, the findings of a French clinical study have shown that a skin patch might be effective against peanut allergies and also potentially against other food allergies. Based on the hypothesis that the allergic shock affecting the immune system can be lessened directly through the skin, the patch contains a high concentration of peanut proteins. The proteins are absorbed by the skin, without entering the bloodstream, thereby ensuring a progressive desensitization to peanuts.
Findings have shown that 83.3% of participants were able to increase the quantity of peanuts they could eat without having an allergic reaction. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dubs this patch a “therapeutic breakthrough”, which could be marketed as early as 2018. Trials are still underway to determine whether the findings are just as promising for milk and egg allergies.
This summer, Australian researchers shared the results of their clinical trials at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne in 2013. The hypothesis driving this study was that administering probiotics with low doses of peanut proteins could increase allergic resistance. Four years later, studies have shown that more than 82% of children who participated in the study, that is, children with peanut allergies, can now eat peanuts just like children without the allergy.
This data implies that not only would this treatment provide a true, long-term tolerance, but also that peanut allergies might be completely cured. The last clinical trials to corroborate this data will soon be underway to market a product with these kinds of therapeutic benefits.
Pilot project in the works at Sainte-Justine UHC
Oral immunotherapy, which is more accessible, might also enable the immune system to limit its excessive reactions to food allergens. This is done by exposing the body to microdoses (0.1 milligrams, or the equivalent of 1/2,500 of a peanut) and increasing them gradually. Results seem largely positive, with a marked tolerance of 80% for peanuts, milk and eggs. A pilot project authorized by Gaétan Barrette, Health and Social Services Minister, has just been launched at the Sainte-Justine UHC where they intend to desensitize 225 patients from 2017 to 2018, and 275 per year for the next two years.
These promising treatments bring into question the preconceived notion that allergies “cannot be cured” and that “you have to live with it”. Knowing that an allergy can happen at any time in life and not only in childhood, these findings give hope to thousands of people suffering from food allergies.