According to new findings from two relatively small studies — there is promise of treating some food allergies through oral immunotherapy.
Even though oral immunotherapy cannot be regarded as a cure-all solution, since it can be potentially dangerous – or even fatal – it may be an effective alternative for some.
Results of both studies appear in the July 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
What is oral immunotherapy?
Oral immunotherapy involves gradually exposing a person to higher doses of the food protein that is the trigger of the allergic reaction – such as egg protein.
While the focus for parents has been to avoid the allergy inducing food entirely, findings show that tolerance can be built by having the person consume the protein in a carefully controlled environment, where they can receive emergency medical treatment if necessary.
The two small studies
The studies which led to these findings involved an egg and milk study.
The egg study observed 55 children allergic to eggs. 40 of these children received oral egg immunotherapy everyday for two years. The findings showed that 11 of the 40 children were able to consume eggs without having a reaction as much as three years later.
The milk study observed 12 children who were allergic to cow’s milk. These children were given daily, small amounts of milk in a clinic for a period of six weeks. According to the study, all of the children were eventually able to drink two glasses of milk a day.
“Parents should have a feeling of optimism that there is a lot of work and effort going into active therapies for food allergies,” said Dr. Todd Green, a food allergy specialist and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Green however added that parents need to approach these findings with some caution since “at this point, these treatments aren’t ready for widespread use, and they’re not ready for home therapy.”
Children in the egg study were all between the ages of 5 and 11 years old. Fifteen of the children were given a placebo while the remaining 40 were given a daily dose of oral egg-white immunotherapy for 10 months.
After 10 months, the children were given an oral food challenge test. At 22 months, children were given another food challenge test. This time they consumed more of the food.
Those who passed were taken off immunotherapy, and then given a food challenge test again two months later to see if their allergy would return.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, egg and milk allergies are among the most common food allergies. Strictly avoiding eggs and milk is also rather difficult because of the variety of food that includes these ingredients.
Some children eventually outgrow these allergies with as many as 70 percent of children with a milk allergy outgrowing it by the age of 3. However this is not the case with all children – who may even die if accidently exposed.
Most side effects children experienced occurred within the first 10 months of the study. There were no severe reactions, but about three-fourths of children receiving the therapy had allergic reactions involving their mouths or throats, compared to one-fifth of children in the placebo group.
“We took a group of children at an age where they weren’t going to outgrow their egg allergy, and by the second year 75 percent could tolerate eggs,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. A. Wesley Burks, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “About 30 percent of the original group passed the third challenge and can now eat eggs intermittently without symptoms.”
Burks, said this type of immunotherapy likely would work with other foods, such as peanuts.
The milk allergy study, which was published as a letter in the journal, took place in Spain. It included 12 children between 2 and 15 years old, all of whom were seriously allergic to milk. The children were given increasing doses of undiluted milk for six weeks.
Researchers cautioned that these studies cannot be carried out at home since they were done in a very controlled manner, with help readily available, and precise dosing schedules.