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UNC allergists are working to improve the lives of those impacted by allergies

Chapel Hill resident, Dr. Edwin Kim, 55, working in the lab for the UNC Food Allergy Initiative at the Mary Ellen Jones building on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Kim and the UNC Food Allergy Initiative are developing peanut allergy treatments to make those with allergies less reactive to allergens. Kim's daughter and son both have nut allergies.

Dr. Edwin Kim, medical director of the UNC Allergy and Immunology Clinic, began studying food allergies while in medical school. Now he works with Executive Dean at the UNC School of Medicine Dr. Wesley Burks — and other researchers in the UNC Food Allergy Initiative — to develop treatments and cures for food allergies.

The UNC Food Allergy Initiative has been involved in different kinds of treatment studies, including oral immunotherapy, OIT, which uses the consumption of food in a flour form as a way of growing resistance against allergies.

Kim said OIT is frequently used with peanut flour, and that the treatment has been in the news recently because the Food and Drug Administration is considering it as an actual treatment for patients. 

“We do also have a big branch of our group that works in the lab that is also trying to understand the immune changes that come with these treatments,” Kim said. “Hopefully that way, we’ll be able to understand a little bit more about why food allergies are happening in the first place.”

Kim’s group has also been involved in a kind of treatment called sublingual immunotherapy, SLIT, which they published an article about last month. SLIT uses liquid peanut solution held under the tongue, as opposed to OIT, in which the flour must be ingested. Both treatments seem to increase how much peanut it takes for people to have an allergic reaction.

Although both treatments seem to be effective, Kim said they have their differences. 

Kim said that SLIT is probably not quite as strong as OIT, but that OIT contains restrictions around what activities one can do around the time of dosing. OIT also appears to be more difficult to administer in comparison to SLIT, which only involves holding a few squirts of liquid under the tongue for a couple of minutes.

Although Kim has been heavily involved in the UNC Food Allergy Initiative, he said he can’t take all of the credit for the group and its accomplishments. He wants people to know about all of the work that Burks has put into this research. 

“This research really began with Dean Burke while he was at Duke, and then he brought this over here,” Kim said. “He’s been a world-renowned food allergist, so I just think it’s important that credit is given where it’s due. This is a lot of the stuff that he started, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to continue to move forward as well.”

Kim has three kids: a 10-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old son and a 6-year-old son, who has a peanut allergy. 

"We gave him peanut butter, and sure enough he started breaking out and getting red all over his mouth,” Kim said about his 6-year-old son. “Not only did he break out in a rash around his mouth, but he also ended up with hives from head to toe, he vomited a few times and then started having coughing and breathing problems. He had the works.”

Kim said it’s a common misconception that he researches allergies because his son has an allergy. He decided to pursue this line of research long before he had his son, and he said he pursued it because he finds the subject fascinating. 

Eri Kakoki is a sophomore majoring in psychology and music who has a severe peanut allergy and a mild chickpea allergy. 

Kakoki said her allergy doesn't affect her as much anymore, but only because it isn't as severe. Despite this, Kakoki said there are still times she has to bail on events because the venue hosting the event uses peanut products in its food.

Kakoki said that having allergies, especially a severe peanut allergy, forced her to distance herself from her classmates while growing up. 

“It was definitely a prominent presence throughout my childhood, because the most popular lunch for kids was peanut butter sandwiches and the most popular snack was peanut butter and celery,” Kakoki said. “That meant I'd have to literally distance myself from the rest of my class during the time I was supposed to interact with my classmates.”

Caitlin Sockin, a sophomore majoring in archaeology, is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, except for almonds. She said her allergies are severe and that they are triggered by ingesting any particle of either classification of nuts. 

Like Kakoki, Sockin said her allergy also significantly affected her childhood. 

“When I was in elementary school, I had to sit at a separate part of the table with any of the other kids with similar allergies,” Sockin said. “So, whenever any of my friends brought peanut butter for lunch, I would have to isolate from them.”

Sockin said that getting the body used to a food that is equivalent to poison can make those afflicted by allergies and their families feel a lot safer when it comes to food.  

“I hope that Dr. Kim makes further advancement in his studies, which would save so many children who wouldn't know better not to eat a peanut,” Sockin said. “In the meantime, I hope others can learn from their differences and isolation in the face of dangerous food, that being different doesn't mean anything negative, and from there can learn to love everyone despite their differences.”

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Kim said that his personal goal, and the goal of his group, is still to find a cure. He said they need to find a way to turn off the food allergy — not just to make it less reactive, but to find a cure. 

Until then, Kim said he hopes the present treatments being developed will give quality of life back to those with allergies.  

“They’re not perfect by any means,” Kim said. “But these treatments may allow patients to go back to doing some of the activities they’ve been too scared to do or go back to activities that may have caused them reactions in the past.”