Doctors in Britain have made a breakthrough in curing potentially fatal nut allergies in children.
Research by a team at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge brings hope to children suffering nut allergies of leading a normal life following the success of a pioneering experimental therapy which has allowed the immune system to be 'retrained' to tolerate peanuts and patients with food allergies become desensitised to the food.
So far trials of the new therapy have helped 20 children aged between 5 and 17 years old with severe peanut allergies, overcome their condition - prior to the treatment, many were unable to touch even trace amounts of peanuts without suffering a reaction.
The researchers say the youngsters can now safely eat up to 12 peanuts a day without any adverse effect and they are planning larger trials of the treatment to test its effectiveness.
They are also hoping to develop the therapy so that it can be used to treat other dangerous allergies to foods such as milk, eggs and gluten and they believe the treatment could become a routine way of combating allergies.
Dr. Pamela Ewan, a senior consultant at the Department of Allergy and Medicine at Addenbrooke's Hospital who led the research, says 20 patients have already been successfully treated.
Dr. Ewan says nuts are the most common food to cause severe, fatal or near-fatal reactions and those treated say it has been a massive, life-changing experience with both mothers and children saying it has removed a huge fear that had been looming over their lives.
Dr. Ewan along with Dr. Andrew Clark, also a consultant in allergy at Addenbrooke's, used tiny doses of peanut flour which were given to the children every day to gradually desensitise their immune systems.
Peanut allergies are triggered by part of the immune system known as antigens that wrongly identify proteins in peanuts as a threat, and cause the immune system to attack the patient's body - symptoms vary in severity from a mild stomach upset and rash to anaphylactic reactions and breathing difficulties that can result in death.
The researchers discovered that if they began by giving children doses of peanut flour that were lower than the minimum amount required to trigger an allergic reaction, they could gradually increase the dose every two weeks until the youngsters could eat the equivalent of six peanuts a day.
After the four-month treatment, the children needed to continue taking peanuts every day to ensure their immune system remained desensitised, and the 20 patients can now eat 12 peanuts a day.
The children will be monitored for the next three or four years to check their tolerance levels and other research will examine whether peanut flour can be given as a tablet.
Dr. Ewan says essentially the immune system is retrained by presenting it with a very low dose to begin with and gradually increasing it but she warns against attempting the treatment outside of a hospital research study facility because it would not be safe.
Most food must now state clearly on the label if it contains nuts or if it has been made in premises that might contain nuts.
Reactions to peanuts can range from mild itching and rashes to potentially dangerous swelling of the airways, breathing problems and severe asthma - it is the most common serious allergic reaction and appears to be on the increase.
Results from the first part of the trial were published in the journal Allergy earlier this year.