Immunotherapy, the process doctors use to desensitize patients to peanuts and ease their allergic reactions, may have just gotten a lot less dangerous.

A new study in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry details a new type of flour that could be used to help acclimate people to food allergy triggers like peanuts.

Peanuts can produce some of the most dangerous allergic reactions of any food, including anaphylaxis. In order to help combat the allergy, some people eat minute quantities of the food over time to get their bodies used to the substance.

But the mulled, roasted peanut flour used in the immunotherapy process can have severe side effects, so Mary Ann Lila, Ph.D., a professor of food science at North Carolina State University, and her colleagues created a new type of flour that does not trigger these dangerous reactions. It could also be adapted for other kinds of food allergies.

“This does not cure them of the allergy, but the desensitization might make the body a bit more tolerant to chance ingestion of peanuts,” Lila said. “The problem is, even the oral immunotherapy is dangerous—the child can have a bad reaction to the treatment and endure all the dangerous peanut allergy reactions… some can’t take it.”

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Creating a Less-Potent Peanut Flour

Lila's team set out to modify peanut flour, which contains allergens called epitopes. The flour they created contains natural, edible fruit polyphenols. Some of those compounds alter the epitopes so that they don't trigger an allergic response in the patient, but still cause enough of an immune system reaction to slowly desensitize the person to peanuts.

“We don’t know yet exactly what the binding interaction is between the polyphenols and the proteins, and we are currently doing digestion experiments to unravel exactly how the peanut product [milled, roasted peanut flour] is being altered by the complexing and binding with fruit components,” Lila said.

“Our strategy... is simple and straightforward binding, using all edible ingredients,” she added.

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And the flour can be made more or less allergenic, so that patients can gradually build up their tolerance.

“The beauty of this strategy is that is allows us to prepare a whole gradient of peanut ingredients that mask or change the allergenicity ‘almost completely’ all the way down to ‘only a bit.’” Lila said. “In other words, we can prepare peanut product that is modified to block the allergic epitopes completely or to expose them to varying degrees, which is really useful for the gradual exposure of a patient.”

Early research has been conducted on blood samples and in mice, so more testing in children would be needed before it could become standard practice. 

“I suppose if this goes mainstream, it could certainly help some people, but of course the best defense is to avoid the triggering allergen as much as possible and be well informed as to where it is commonly found,” said Andy Bellatti, a nutritionist based in Las Vegas.

Get Involved in Food Allergy Awareness Week

The news comes during Food Allergy Awareness Week, which is an opportune time to learn more about food allergies and their triggers. There are several ways to get involved, including walk-a-thon events.

A major part of food allergy awareness is monitoring what you eat and carrying medication to prevent anaphylaxis. Many people carry EPI, or epinephrine, pens, and there’s a new device called the Auvi-Q, which talks a lay person through the process of giving an epinephrine shot.

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