Unprecedented: Has the cure for peanut allergy been found?

The war of iron swords poses difficult challenges to Israeli agriculture, and this has been written about here many times. The lack of working hands, abandoned agricultural lands in the south and the north, and recently the cloud of the threat of ending cooperation and the exchange of information between Israeli academic institutions and parallel and leading institutions in the world has also been added. Among other things, also in topics that promote agriculture and nutrition. The damage in this area could be significant, because Israel has a global reputation as a leader in research and innovative and ground-breaking agricultural technologies in various fields such as irrigation, plant protection and the development of new varieties of fruits and vegetables.

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At the beginning of the month, a conference of the Israeli National Academy of Sciences and the Young Academy was held. The conference dealt with the achievements of agricultural research in Israel, innovation in Israel and food security. One of the fascinating lectures was by Dr. Ran Hovav from the Director of Agricultural Research – Volcani Institute. Hovav presented an innovative treatment for peanut allergy.

The immune system kicks in

An allergy occurs when our immune system does not distinguish between "friend" and "adversary", and treats a certain food component by mistake as a harmful factor that harms the body, and in response produces antibodies (immunoglobulins). Allergies usually begin in the early stages of life, at the age of one or two years, but can also appear at any later age.

Children usually overcome allergies to milk and eggs by the age of 3 (10-15% of those allergic as babies will also be allergic as adults). On the other hand, allergies to fish, nuts and peanuts usually do not go away.

The first exposure to an allergen usually causes a mild reaction, and in some the reaction is not even noticeable. The second time, the reaction to the same allergen is more acute, because the body has "labeled" the allergen as an opponent, and is ready to attack. The reaction can manifest itself in different ways – from a rash and redness in the skin of varying degrees to an anaphylactic shock (a rapid reaction to an allergen that in extreme cases and without treatment can cause death).

The prevalence of food allergy is increasing worldwide. And it is estimated that about 8% of people have a particular food allergy, so the need to find solutions increases.

In recent years, we have witnessed an increase in the level of awareness of the dangers of allergies and the allergy population. There is extensive detail on the packaging of the food products, there is a growing awareness in restaurants (especially after several cases that even led to death in recent years), as well as in educational institutions, and in particular in primary education. Parents are asked to refrain from bringing food products that could endanger the allergic children at school.

The peanut allergy challenge

There are two different approaches to avoiding allergy symptoms. The first, which we mentioned, is the complete avoidance of allergen consumption and the creation of a sterile environment. Alternatively – development of hypoallergenic varieties.

The second approach is to develop tolerance to the allergen with the help of gradual exposure to the allergen by ingestion or injection, with the aim of training the immune system of the child with the allergy, and thus giving him increasing doses until the system "learns" and adapts to the allergen in order to minimize the attacks.

Out of the variety of allergenic food components, dealing with an allergy to peanuts (like other nuts) is particularly challenging, since beyond the fact that the incidence is high, and that the allergy does not go away with age, they are found in many industrialized foods.

בוטנים (צילום: אינג אימג')
Peanuts (Photo: Eng Image)

According to Dr. Hovav, unlike milk allergy, which can be treated by developing tolerance to the allergen, there is currently no solution to this serious problem of peanut allergy. Treatment by ingesting small amounts of peanuts is considered acceptable, but this treatment is also not sufficient, because it is accompanied In severe outbreaks that affect the quality of life of the patients. In addition, the experimental treatments do not lead to recovery, but only to a situation where it is possible to be exposed to limited amounts of the allergen without endangering life. The immune system of babies and toddlers is flexible and can be influenced in a good way, according to Dr. Hovav had to look for a solution that is also suitable for the little ones.

The relationship of protein to allergy

For the purpose of the research, Hovav joined Dr. Mona Kidon, director of the allergy clinic at Safra Children's Hospital. Kidon, who is world-renowned in the treatment of allergies, developed a structured program to develop tolerance against cow's milk allergy, which includes gradual exposure to boiled and heated milk.

As with any allergy, the protein component is the one that initiates the allergic reaction. According to Dr. Hovav, the challenge is particularly great, because peanuts contain 13 different types of proteins, and not one specific protein. Different people in the population are sensitive to different proteins.

Based on previous studies, Hovav and Kidon tried to work with a young peanut, since the amount of proteins in its cells is lower. Using young peanuts as they are did not show a better result than using regular peanuts, but young peanuts that have been cooked were less allergenic than regular peanuts.

The young peanuts were harvested from the fields of the Western Negev, dried and frozen in powder form. The powder is used in the kitchen at home in cooking and baking in a variety of recipes, each time increasing the dosage of the powder in the foods – so that the children were exposed to peanuts safely throughout the treatment period.

33 children and teenagers between the ages of 1 and 18 participated in the study. 18 of the participants were less than 4 years old. A protocol was built that includes gradual exposure using a cookie. Initially – to boiled and fried young peanuts, later to boiled young peanuts and finally eating regular peanuts. At the end of the process, many experimenters even managed to eat the popular Bamba peanut snack. The treatment results were good. Side effects were minor. Compliance was good – 32 children continued until the end of the study.

According to Dr. Hovav, the study is small in scope, and there was no control group (placebo), but its potential is huge. The results of the study, says Hovav, open a new field for the treatment of allergies to other food products, such as soy, cashews and walnuts.

It is hoped that the Israeli research will succeed in producing a drug that will be at hand and will help the peanut allergic population.


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