The Future of Food Allergy

in Food Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

Following is excerpted from our 20-page Special Report on the Future of Allergies, Asthma, Celiac in the Spring 2010 5th Anniversary edition of Allergic Living.

Look a decade ahead and there’s big news: therapies for food allergies. And not just one.
From herbal pills to vaccines and immunotherapy, expect a choice of treatments.

IMAGINE AN allergy clinic where, in one examining room, a young boy is getting his first minute dose of milk, starting on a journey from avoidance to ice cream. In another, a nurse explains to a mother how to insert a vaccine suppository – rectally – so that her daughter will soon be able to chow down on the coveted lunch: a peanut-butter and jam sandwich.

In the third room, an allergist is scrawling out a prescription for a herbal remedy, sending a young woman on her way to building up tolerance to her multiple allergies. Should she eat a small amount of an off-limits food by mistake, the herbs will sharply reduce her risk of an anaphylactic reaction.

In a fourth room, two parents hug in relief – results of a novel blood test show that their 3-year-old, though peanut-allergic, does not carry the biological markers for anaphylaxis, the dangerous form of reaction.

Does this all sound like a pipe dream? Not according to the experts. Allergy researchers predict that the way we treat and test for food allergies by the end of this decade will be vastly different from today. Currently, the only way to prevent a serious reaction is strict avoidance of allergenic foods.

Sure, there are encouraging small clinical studies in which allergic children are fed specks of peanut or drops of milk and then progress to larger amounts of the food, a process called oral immunotherapy or OIT. But its successes today still only number in the dozens.

Fast forward 10 years, and the people on the forefront of food allergy research say we should have more than one way to treat food allergies, and these treatments will be available to the masses. In some cases, the allergy may effectively be cured. Most intriguing is that specialists expect to be able to predict which treatment will work better for which person.

“In the age of personalized medicine, we could be tailoring some of the therapies depending on the specific features of any given individual’s allergy profile,” says Dr. Scott Sicherer, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a leading researcher at the university’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute.

We’ve come so far so fast. Until recently, food allergy treatments being tested on humans were virtually non-existent.

“Prior to 10 years ago, there was hardly any research being conducted, except at the most basic level, and it was primarily just on peanut allergy,” says Todd Slotkin, chairman of the Food Allergy Initiative.

Slotkin is the father of twin sons with food allergies and one of the “concerned parents and grandparents” who founded FAI 12 years ago to fund research for a food allergy cure. In 2009, FAI merged with the Food Allergy Project, founded with similar goals by Denise and David Bunning. Together, the two organizations have contributed $65 million toward food allergy research and advocacy. “For a long time FAI was the major funder of this,” says Slotkin.

Now the U.S. government has finally stepped up to the plate as well. Food allergy funding through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has jumped dramatically: from a paltry $1.2 million in 2003 to $20.8 million in 2008. With their hands finally on some funding, scientists can do the painstaking work of studying every angle of the treatments: whether they’re safe, what dose is optimal, who they’ll work best for, and how long the effect of the treatment will last.

Oral immunotherapy alone has created a flurry of excitement and interest. Last year the world was abuzz when the British press proclaimed scientists from Cambridge had found “the cure” for peanut allergies.

Looking past the headlines, though, it became clear that the Cambridge study was simply adding to a body of evidence already established in North America that OIT had definite potential as mainstay treatment.

OIT is far from the only treatment that is expected to be available to a food allergic patient in the decade ahead. In fact, a deliberate decision has been made not to put all the research dollars into one basket. “If we knew which horse was going to win the race, it would be easy to bet just on that horse,” says Slotkin.

See the rest of this article in Allergic Living‘s Spring 2010 anniversary issue.

Also included in the 20-page special report, The Future of Allergies:

  • Groundbreaking findings link plastics, pollens and environmental allergies.
  • The future holds therapies for celiac disease.
  • An inside look at all the main research in the pipeline for food allergy, asthma and celiac disease.

To order that issue and/or to subscribe, click here.

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