Peanut allergy is one of the most deadly food allergies in the United States, and one of the least likely to be outgrown.
Now, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found that ingesting "teeny-tiny" amounts of peanut protein can help treat the condition – sort of.
The allergy is usually caused by a certain protein found in the peanut kernel and marketed in its medical form as AR101.
The results are important because they play a role in determining whether AR101 can move on to the next stage of approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration. No treatment for peanut allergy has gained FDA approval.
In very small amounts, the protein in AR101 does not cause a reaction, even in people with severe peanut allergies, said Kirsi Järvinen-Seppo, who is the principal investigator of a study at the University of Rochester Medical Center similar to the one described in the New England Journal of Medicine article.
“You start with extremely minute amounts of peanut protein – it’s like a thousandth of a peanut,” Järvinen-Seppo said. “You will desensitize the immune system to this protein, and you do so by going very slowly.”
Despite the seeming simplicity of the treatment, it’s not a home remedy, warned Järvinen-Seppo. The measurements of the protein required are too precise. “There’s no way you would be able to measure such a small amount. Even with micro-scales that I use for measuring, they can have errors,” she said.
Järvinen-Seppo’s AR101 research is not yet published, but she says the results of her work at URMC are “coming soon.”
Both studies are funded in part by Aimunne Therapeutics, which developed AR101.
The main difference between the study Järvinen-Seppo is overseeing and the one published in the New England Journal of Medicine is that hers started without a “baseline food challenge.”
That challenge measures the amount of a food that a person can tolerate without an allergic reaction. Järvinen-Seppo said the published study is a good step toward gaining FDA approval for AR101 to treat peanut allergies, but her work better reflects how the substance would actually be used by physicians.
“In the real world, you’re not going to have a baseline food challenge for every patient,” Järvinen-Seppo said. “You’re going to have signs that a peanut allergy exists, and you’re going to start from there.”
Researchers on both studies also warned that people receiving treatment with AR101 will likely not be able to gorge themselves on peanuts. Instead, the substance is designed as a way to reduce the stress that often accompanies a severe allergy.
Still, Järvinen-Seppo said, she’s heard positive reviews from some of the people involved in the URMC study. “Families have been very grateful,” she said.