Researchers at North Carolina A&T State University are working toward creating a hypoallergenic peanut for consumption.
A group of scientists led by Jianmei Yu, a research scientist at the university, have created a process known as peanut cleansing that breaks down the allergenic proteins of the peanut. The project is sponsored by food-tech start-up Alrgn Bio.
Yu said the process produces peanuts with significant decreases in the four most prominent potential allergens within peanuts. While there is a loss of protein during the treatment, its food value remains unchanged.
Rather than altering the peanut, researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill have gone down the path of conditioning the human immune system.
Brian Vickery, a professor of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine, and Wesley Burks, the school’s executive dean, along with a team of researchers have explored peanut oral immunotherapy. The therapy is a process of exposing patients allergic to peanuts in small amounts, gradually increasing them over time to eventually build immunity to the allergen.
Vickery said peanut allergies are lifelong for 80 percent of patients. The antibody IGE, a molecule that reacts with allergen agents in peanuts, increases over time and causes the allergy to worsen over time.
The team started the therapy on patients at the age when peanut allergies are first diagnosed and the IGE antibody is lowest in amount. The study included mixing a peanut protein powder in with food, such as applesauce or pudding, to feed it to the patients for about 29 months, and to reintroduce it after four weeks in a controlled setting.
“Over 80 percent achieved a result to eat peanuts without any side effects, but we are still unsure,” Vickery said. “We don’t know if they are cured, so we will follow up to see if it continues.”
Burks said there have not been enough studies to determine the long term effectiveness of the therapy. The process needs to be studied for years to see definitive results.
UNC researchers will be collaborating with the N.C. A&T research team to help provide reliable evidence about the reduced allergenic properties of allergen reduced peanuts, Dr. Yu said.
The team will use a group of mice that are allergic to peanuts to test their reactions with the hypoallergenic peanut. This testing process will help them understand how it biologically interacts with the immune system.
Burks said the hypoallergenic peanuts could be a safer replacement for normal peanuts in the oral immunotherapy process.
“Phase three (Food and Drug Administration) options could be viable options used in the next five years,” he said.
While Vickery said the potential to use hypoallergenic peanuts in the therapy seems useful, he wonders what that might mean for commercial production.
“I’m a little less optimistic about two different types of peanut butter on the shelf, one Jif and the other a hypoallergenic variant,” Vickery said. “That’s harder for me to envision.”
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story unclearly stated the peanut cleansing process. The process developed by N.C. A&T researchers breaks down the allergenic proteins, not enzymes, in peanuts. The story has been updated to reflect this.