Researchers turn off peanut allergy in mice

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Scientists may have found a way to turn off food allergies by tricking the immune system into considering the foods normal, not threatening.

Scientists at Northwestern University were able to switch off a peanut allergy in mice and hope their successful experiment may ultimately lead to treatment for human patients.

That would be welcome news for 13-year-old Mark Weinstein, one of thousands of children with a food allergy. He is diligent about reading labels to navigate the dangers of his condition. But could his allergy eventually be turned off?

The immunology researchers at Northwestern University worked with mice in a model that mimics peanut allergies.

They gave the mice a shot of peanut protein piggybacking on white blood cells called leukocytes. After two treatments, the mice no longer showed an allergic reaction when they were fed a peanut, the researchers said in a paper published in the Journal of Immunology.

The approach also pumps up the number of regulatory cells, called T cells, to create a more balanced immune system, according to the researchers.

“T cells come in different ‘flavors’,” Paul Bryce, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine told the University. “This method turns off the dangerous Th2 T cell that causes the allergy and expands the good, calming regulatory T cells. We are supposed to be able to eat peanuts. We’ve restored this tolerance to the immune system.”

Bryce also said that he thinks the same method could target multiple allergies at once. The study’s co-author Stephen Miller, also a Northwestern professor, has successfully experimented with a similar treatment for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes that is now being tested on patients in early clinical trials.

Up to 30,000 people a year in the U.S. have sever allergic reactions to food. Two months ago, 15-year-old Jharell Dillard died in Georgia after eating a cookie that contained a trace of peanuts.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Food Allergy Initiative.