Fresh hope for allergy sufferers: 'Peanut allergy is in the process of being 'cured''
There's plenty of research offering fresh hope
Experts predict that the soaring levels of allergies are only set to continue with around half of the entire EU population anticipated to be affected by some form of chronic allergic disease by 2025. According to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, "the unavoidable indirect costs of failure to properly treat allergy in the EU is estimated to range between €55bn and €151bn per annum".
But because allergies, and in particular food allergies, are affecting more people, there has also been an increased level of attention focused on research to better understand and resolve rising rates of food hypersensitivity.
As the one most often associated with the severest reactions and anaphylactic shock, peanut allergies are at the forefront of much of the current research.
"Peanut allergy is in the process of being 'cured'," reveals paediatric dietitian Ruth Charles, founder of the Irish Food Allergy Network. "Andy Clarke and colleagues in Cambridge's STOP study have managed to induce tolerance in peanut allergic children."
"There are a number of multi-centre trials currently looking at different ways to increase children's tolerance of peanuts, which will hopefully form the basis of new treatments in the future," agrees Dr Aideen Byrne, consultant allergist at Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin and the National Children's Hospital, Tallaght.
Just recently, a study led by scientists from the University of British Columbia in Canada and published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology discovered a gene linked to peanut allergies.
"Food allergy is the result of both genetic and environmental factors, but there are surprisingly few data regarding the genetic basis of this condition," says Dr Denise Daley co-author of the study.
"The discovery of this genetic link gives us a fuller picture of the causes of food allergies, and this could eventually help doctors identify children at risk."
Last summer in Australia, a major breakthrough was revealed when researchers who pioneered a new form of treatment - combining a probiotic with peanut oral immunotherapy (PPOIT) to treat children with peanut allergy.
The clinical trial resulted in two thirds of the children being cured of their allergy with their desensitisation to peanuts continuing for up to four years after treatment.
This approach of inducing tolerance through desensitisation is also reaping rewards with other food allergies, with some trials using cooked versions of milk and egg to try and induce tolerance, but it's a method that must only be undertaken on medical advice and with supervision.
Ireland is playing an important part in contributing to the development of information and understanding around allergies.
"We've got some major research projects going on here in Ireland," reveals Professor Jonathan Hourihane, professor of paediatrics in UCC. "We're got a leading dermatology centre in Crumlin with Professor Alan Irvine, and with him we've done major work with skin barrier function in babies."
So far, the research suggests that a skin barrier defect may be a factor in both eczema and food allergies. "We've a trial starting now to protect the baby skin barrier to prevent eczema with the hope that this would have a knock-on effect on preventing food allergies and possibly even asthma and lead to fever symptoms," explains Prof Hourihane.
"I'm also a principal investigator in the Infant Research Centre in UCC and we're doing work now with commercial companies with skin barrier protection, trying to see if we can intervene even before children leave hospital after they're born, so that's going to be very interesting."
He continues: "In Cork and Dublin, we're involved in trials and treatment for children with peanut allergy, both trying to treat it through the skin and also giving immunotherapy, so those studies are on-going. Ireland is making a major contribution to research in this area."
POSSIBLE SYMPTOMS OF ANAPHYLAXIS
* Swelling of the throat and mouth
* Difficulty swallowing or speaking
* Change in heart rate
* Difficulty breathing
* Hives anywhere on the body
* Flushing on the skin
* Stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting
* Sudden weakness (caused by a drop in blood pressure)
* Collapsing or falling unconscious
If you have any type of allergic reaction see a GP immediately. You should treat it as very serious if you find it hard to breathe or swallow or experience sudden weakness or floppiness. (Source: Anaphylaxis Ireland; see anaphylaxisireland.ie)
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