Small dose of peanuts could prevent allergy

Feb 23, 2015, 6:52 PM EST
Close up of hungry squirrel with big black eyes holding peanut in paws and eating in grass

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that non-allergic young infants who ate small amounts of peanuts at an early age had a much lower rate of peanut allergy later in life than those who avoided nuts for five years. TIME reports:

“We are actually preventing the immune response from going along a pathway that leads to clinical reactivity, and it’s like, wow,” says Dr. Rebecca Gruchalla, professor of medicine and pediatrics at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who wrote an accompanying editorial. “It’s pretty cool to actually divert and keep the immune system from developing along a pathway that we don’t want it to go.”
[Gideon] Lack and his senior co-investigator George Du Toit, a pediatric allergy consultant at the College, conducted their study on 640 infants with severe eczema or egg allergy. These babies were chosen because of their increased risk of developing other food allergies, including to peanuts, and were enrolled when they were between four months and 11 months old. That’s an important window of opportunity, says Lack, to intervene and retrain the immune system to become tolerant to peanuts.
Peanut allergies in particular have doubled in the last 10 years, so a team of researchers with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the nonprofit group Food Allergy Research and Education set out to see whether early exposure to peanuts played a role in developing peanut allergies.
They followed hundreds of children from the time they showed a slight sensitivity to peanuts -- between 6 and 11 months old -- until they were 5 years old. Those who avoided peanuts were more likely to develop full-blown peanut allergies than those who didn't, according to the study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Only 1.9 percent of those who were exposed to peanuts early developed the allergies compared with 13.7 of those who developed allergies after avoiding peanuts, the study showed.
Dr. Stacy Dorris, an allergist and immunologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, called the study "exciting." Dorris was not involved in the study, but said prior to 2008, parents were told to avoid feeding their children peanuts until they were about 2 years old. That year, evidence in Israel began to hint that perhaps early exposure to peanuts might prevent the allergies, she said.
"I think it's really going to be a game-changer for the allergy world," said Dr. Samuel Friedlander, an allergy and immunology specialist at the University Hospitals in Cleveland, who was not involved in the study. "Up until now, we've been focused on diagnosis and management of children that have food allergies. This is the first randomized, controlled study that gives us evidence that we can prevent the occurrence of food allergies in kids. It would be much easier for us to be able to prevent the development of food allergies in the first place."