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Exposing infants to certain foods early on could prevent them from developing life-threatening allergies, but what about about those who are already allergic? Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on promising new research that may help some diminish dangerous reactions.
Now to the dramatic increase in food allergies, and what can be done about it.
You might recall the big news earlier this year, when scientists said that the best way to head off peanut allergies in children is to expose them to the nuts early on. But what about for those who already have allergies?
The NewsHour's Cat Wise, who has a personal connection to this disease, has our report.
I have two young boys with life-threatening food allergies. A year ago, my older son ended up in the E.R. after accidentally eating a muffin with walnuts. Both boys are allergic to eggs, so cake at friends' birthday parties is not an option, much to their frustration.
Our experience is not unique. One in 12 American children has been diagnosed with a food allergy. The rate of those food allergies has doubled over the last decade. Every year, 90,000 people visit the E.R. with food allergy reactions, and nearly 200 die.
While some people outgrow their allergies, most are never cured. But that life sentence may be about to change.
All right, Ms. Parker, how are we doing?
We're going to do your food challenge today.
Twelve-year-old Parker Anderson has been allergic to peanuts and tree nuts since she was a toddler. She's come to Stanford University to enroll in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial, in the hopes that she may one day be able to eat nuts.
Alright, five milligrams. All right, a little bit on the lips. Don't lick it off. OK? All right, how does that feel?
OK. No itching? Doesn't tingle at all?
Anderson, who spent five years on a wait-list to get here, is being given a small amount of one of the very foods she's allergic to, pistachios. It's the first step in a treatment she's about to begin called oral immunotherapy to train her body not to react to nuts.
It's a little scary, but I know that it will get better, like, over time. They're going to desensitize me to all my allergies, so that I can start eating it normally, and not have to worry anymore.
DR. KARI NADEAU, Director, Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research: You're giving back the very same food the person is allergic to.
Dr. Kari Nadeau is treating Anderson and the 300-some patients currently enrolled in trials. And she is the tour de force behind the food allergy research program at Stanford.
DR. KARI NADEAU:
What are some of the foods you have always wanted to try that you haven't so far? What's your wish list?
Oh, peanut butter banana smoothie.
Oh, peanut butter banana smoothie, OK.
Very carefully, we start with minuscule amounts of that food, and you give it at levels that won't cause a reaction. And you give it to the person, make sure they're doing OK, and then you tell them to take it every day for another two weeks. Then they come back in the clinic, and we dose you up here. Always, we increase the dose while you're here in the clinic.
A number of research institutions around the country, and even some private practices, are treating food allergy patients with similar methods.
But Dr. Nadeau has pioneered a way to treat people who have multiple allergies, up to five, at the same time. And she's found a way to dramatically reduce the time it takes to desensitize patients through the use of an immune-suppressing asthma drug called Xolair.
We gave the Xolair, and then at eight weeks, we give that first dose of the food. It only takes about 16 weeks to 24 weeks then to be able to get someone up to a serving's worth of food that would normally take two years to three years.
In a small room in the clinic basement, known as the food pharmacy, nutritionist Katherine Lloyd has one of the most important jobs on the research team: ensuring patients get the right dose. She uses a highly sensitive scale to measure minuscule amounts of allergens. The smallest dose she distributes, 0.5 milligrams, is the equivalent of about 1/16th of a single peanut.
KATHERINE LLOYD, Nutritionist:
You just have to be very precise, because, if you give them too much, they may have a reaction. And I do kind of feel like a pharmacist down here, just measuring out. It's almost as if I'm counting pills.
On the day we visited, 4-year-old Hudson Brown, who has multiple food allergies, including peanuts, was getting one of those carefully prepared doses. He's been in the trial since August and now eats about eight peanuts a day, with the help of some chocolate pudding.
This is your first bite of 2,000 milligrams. This is your maintenance dose. Ready? Oh, awesome. Don't eat the spoon, though, OK?
Nationally, based on a small number of studies that have looked at a small number of patients, it seems that Caucasians and Asians have a higher likelihood of developing food allergies, but much more research is needed, according to allergy experts.
At Stanford, more than 700 youth and adult patients have completed treatment since 2003. Nearly 90 percent have had their allergies go away, although Dr. Nadeau cautions it is too early to use the word cured. The remaining patients either moved away, stopped taking their doses regularly, or had unrelated health issues.
Oh, my goodness. Those are awesome breaths, dude.
While no one has died or had a life-threatening reaction, the treatment is not an easy experience. In addition to being time-consuming, most patients at some point get stomach problems, skin rashes, or sore, itchy throats. But for those who stick with the program, the results can be dramatic.
I eat this one first. Then the cashew.
Then the peanut, because that's — because this is what I like the best.
Maya and Carly Sandberg were among the first patients to go through the multi-allergen studies with Dr. Nadeau.
At last, the biggest dose.
They are now continuing to eat nuts several times a week to keep up their immunity, something that patients who complete the study are encouraged to do. Their mom, Michelle Sandberg, is a pediatrician, who says the results of the trial surprised her.
DR. MICHELLE SANDBERG:
Initially, the goals were basically to decrease the risk of anaphylaxis. I never dreamed that there would be desensitization or a cure. But, as time passed, and as Dr. Nadeau saw the data, you know, these kids were being fully desensitized. Everything is completely normal. We buy any product we want. They eat the same snack at school as the other kids. At birthday parties, they go alone. They eat the cake, restaurants, everything.
Lots of different kinds of nuts.
Pretty much every kind of nut.
In fact, nuts are a big part of the family diet now.
It's amazing for me, with my own kids having nut allergies, to see this.
Now, actually, my goal is to get as much nuts into my kids as possible.
Dr. Nadeau's research efforts recently got a big boost. Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who has severe food allergies, donated $24 million to Stanford to advance scientific understanding of the disease.
In the lab that now bears Parker's name, Dr. Nadeau has a team of scientists working on a variety of experiments aimed at understanding the underlying causes of allergies.
We are where cancer therapy was 20 years ago. There's a black box right now behind what is the cause of allergies, and how can we improve and treat allergies? And that's exactly what we're studying in the lab on the cell level, on the DNA level, but, importantly, is that we do our science to directly, in real time, help people with the disease.
Its research that may one day aid my own children, and the millions like them with food allergies.
Many families, in fact all of them, they live 365 days in fear. They really live a life where they observe life, and rather than live it. And so at the end of the study, what I would really like to be able to accomplish for those families is so they can live life, so a child doesn't have to sit out of a birthday party, and be on the side eating their own type of food.
And she hopes, if things go according to plan, Parker Anderson might just be able to eat that peanut butter banana smoothie she's been craving later this year.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Palo Alto, California.
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