A team of researchers from Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia has achieved a significant breakthrough in the treatment of peanut allergies. By adding a bacterial supplement to the diets of children known to suffer from this condition, they were able to eliminate the symptoms these boys and girls normally experience whenever they eat peanuts or peanut-based products.
The bacterium they used in their experiments is known as Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Found in fermented foods and available for sale over the counter, this microbial life form helps maintain digestive functioning by limiting the reproduction of harmful bacteria in the stomach and intestines.
The Australian scientists decided to include it in their research project because of its proven ability to ameliorate the symptoms of other food allergies. They had no idea if it would make a difference for peanut allergy sufferers or not, but in the end they were astonished by the results they observed.
Putting Peanut Allergies on the Run Down Under
Peanut allergies are a serious affair. In some instances, exposure to peanut products when an allergy is present can cause a potentially deadly reaction known as anaphylaxis. When a person goes into anaphylactic shock, he or she can experience a number of dangerous and distressing symptoms, including hives, rashes, low blood pressure, dizziness, muscle rigidity, swelling of the tongue and constriction of the respiratory system. Under extreme circumstances, anaphylaxis can even lead to heart failure and death. In one study, almost one-fourth of all school-aged children tested showed signs of peanut allergy, making it by far the most common form of food sensitivity in young people.
For quite some time, medical researchers have been experimenting with a type of therapy known as oral immunization therapy, or OIT, as a possible remedy for peanut allergies. Under an OIT regimen, doctors introduce tiny amounts of peanut products into the diets of allergy sufferers, slowly increasing the quantity over an extended period of time (under full clinical supervision, of course). The allergy does not disappear, but the body gradually becomes more tolerant of its effects, allowing the person to consume peanuts without excessive distress. This type of treatment does not work for everyone, and once it is discontinued the allergy sufferer will revert to his or her former level of intolerance.
Murdoch Childrens Research Institute personnel were familiar with the successes and limitations of OIT. They were interested in seeing how this type of therapy might work if children undergoing it were also administered regular doses of a beneficial probiotic (Lactobacillus rhamnosus) known to improve digestion.
Two groups of kids with peanut allergies and between the ages of 1 through 10 were included in the Murdoch Institute study: one set of 28 was given a combination of OIT and Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and a second group of 28 was treated with oral immunization therapy only. Normal placebo protocols were observed, meaning that none of the children knew they were part of a control group. The total duration of the two treatment regimens was 18 months, after which all therapy was discontinued and the children were sent home.
But for a three-week period that began two weeks after the last round of OIT therapy had been administered, the 56 kids involved in the experiment were brought back to the Institute one by one to participate in the final stage of the research project. Under close medical supervision, each child was given a single large dose of peanuts to consume, after which the children’s physical responses were closely monitored for signs of allergic reaction.
In agreement with previous findings, only one out of 28 kids in the placebo/OIT-exclusive group showed signs of recovery from peanut allergy. But much to the amazement of the research team, after eating the peanuts 23 out of the 28 children who’d been given probiotics plus OIT demonstrated no signs of an allergic reaction. Over the course of the original experiment, three of the children in the probiotic plus OIT group showed symptoms of anaphylactic shock, so even before the follow-up stage of the experiment the Australian scientists knew their innovative new form of therapy wasn’t going to work for everyone. But the final results they achieved far surpassed their most optimistic expectations.
The Dawn of a New Era?
The researchers admit it is too soon to know for sure if the loss of allergic reactions in the children who took the bacterial supplement is permanent. More time and more follow-up will be necessary to answer that question. But even if the peanut allergies do eventually return, just the fact they went into remission at all is a tremendously significant finding.
If Lactobacillus rhamnosus works as either a temporary or lasting remedy for food allergies, from the standpoint of those who suffer from this condition it could eventually fulfill a miracle and cure peanut allergies. It could protect them from a real threat to their health while allowing them to expand the range of wonderful-tasting foods they are capable of consuming. And needless to say, it could bring great relief to the moms and dads of children who have been diagnosed with this common but incredibly dangerous type of allergy.
More research will have to be done to confirm these initial results. But right now the situation looks extremely promising.