Peanut Allergy Solution?

Because of a close personal connection to this issue, I thought I'd mention an article that just came out with a headline of "Expert sees peanut allergy solution within 5 years."

I think that any research they do to further the scientific understanding of this baffling problem is great. And if a prominent researcher claims he thinks that a solution is near, that's even better.

I can't help but be skeptical, however. How many times have we seen research about a current affliction gets lots of hype but produces no results? Also, the following bit raises more questions than it answers:

[Dr. Burks] said that because several peanut proteins are involved in the allergic response, the process of altering enough of the peanut allergens to make a modified peanut that is less likely to cause an allergic reaction would probably render the new peanut no longer a peanut.

"You could end up with a soybean," Burks said. [bold added]

Great that they are targeting specific proteins that trigger the autoimmune response. But what I immediately thought of was that one of the theories of peanut allergy is that peanut proteins are everywhere, in products you'd never expect, and some think that this sudden overexposure may have something to do with the allergy.

If that is actually the case, or even a contributing factor, would modifying the proteins be a long-term solution? In decades (or less) the pervasive newly-modifed proteins could cause the same problems. And comparing them to a soybean? Soybeans are even more pervasive than peanuts. I know that wasn't the point, but in context it just made it sound even worse.

In spite of my skepticism, I'm really glad to see that this type of article come out, and also "that there are multiple types of studies that are ongoing now." Here's hoping that the full force of human intellect and creativity is applied to this problem.


Monica said...

Even if a person was still limited in some foods due to their possible contamination with real peanuts, it would still be great if a peanut allergic person could enjoy eating a tasty engineered peanut... and who knows, perhaps the engineered peanuts would become commonplace enough that they'd pretty much wipe out the old varieties.

My skepticism comes in the possibility of engineering a peanut that is truly non-allergenic to *anyone* that is currently allergic, though. Because people can have allergies to a variety of proteins in the peanut, as I understand. So this super peanut is going to have to be super. And I really doubt they'll ever get rid of the molds that produce aflatoxin around the peanut roots. This is a source of some peoples' allergies, from what I understand. Until we reach a far greater stage of scientific achievement, I don't think *those* people will ever have hope of eating a peanut.

But.... they say five years from now they'll be able to sequence a human genome for $1000. So who knows what is possible.

Rational Jenn said...

I read this article a couple of days ago and I've been thinking it over ever since. I'll be writing something up at my blog, so look for my main thoughts there.

There are, I believe, 6 different peanut proteins that cause reactions and I don't know whether any are related to aflatoxins. I'll have to look into that a bit, because I know that that is an issue beyond the allergy situation. And I agree with you, C, that we'd still have to be careful of the regular peanuts.

Thanks for writing about this, because the article does highlight the many, many encouraging developments that are ongoing in the study of food allergies, in particular peanut which is by leaps and bounds the most deadly food allergen.