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Learning to tolerate a peanut allergy

February 21, 2009 | 12:00 pm

PeanutbagPeanut allergies affect thousands of people and can even produce life-threatening anaphylactic shock in severe cases. With few ways to protect people with a peanut allergy -- other than avoidance -- British researchers have tested a daring new approach to the allergy. They exposed people to peanuts.

The study, published this week in the journal Allergy, was conducted in only four children with peanut allergies. The researchers slowly exposed the children to peanuts over a six-month period, starting with as little as 5 milligrams of peanut protein, which is about one-fortieth of a peanut. Eventually, the children were all able to tolerate up to 10 peanuts (although one child had anaphylaxis during the study and required an adrenaline injection). Though the amount of peanuts tolerated was small, the authors noted, it might protect children who accidentally ingest peanuts hidden in food.

Previous allergy studies have shown people can be desensitized to allergens like pollen and bee stings. But desensitization has never been shown to work with a food-related allergy. The researchers, from Addenbrooke Hospital in Cambridge, told the BBC that the patients should be able to retain their tolerance by eating a small daily dose of peanut protein. The study is continuing in a larger number of people.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Ken Hammond / Associated Press