Irish Times Article re allergen free peanut studies
Scientists try to crack the case of the peanut allergy
Scientists are on a mission to turn the potentially lethal peanut into something everyone can eat. As researchers dig into the genetics of the crop, Stephanie Desmon explains how an allergen-free hybrid might be cultivated
Experts are on a quest to build a better peanut, one safe enough to spread on the sandwich of even the most allergic child. With peanut allergies on the rise, the race is on in laboratories, farm fields and medical clinics.
Nobody has yet broken through, but promising research is being done on several fronts as scientists try to turn the potentially lethal legume into something everyone can eat.
"A lot of people are starting to try to get into the field, because of the urgency," says Soheila Maleki, a research scientist with the US Department of Agriculture in New Orleans.
Maleki is among the researchers digging into the genetics of the peanut, trying to breed a harmless variety. Other scientists are treating peanuts after they have been pulled from the ground, trying to erase that which creates extreme - even fatal - reactions in some people.
Some doctors and parents of allergic children say none of this is likely to assuage the fear that a child could end up in A&E after ingesting even trace amounts of the chemicals tucked into the proteins of the peanut.
Instead, they would prefer the focus to be on finding a cure for the allergy. "I think it's really neat that people are exploring options," says Lissa Roberts, whose seven-year-old daughter is severely allergic to peanuts, milk and eggs. "But I don't think it does anything for us, because they can't guarantee it won't be free of [ all allergens] and that's too big a risk for us."
Some figures have shown that allergies to foods - with peanuts being one of the most dangerous - have doubled or tripled in the past decade. The reasons for the increase have eluded doctors.
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases nearly quadrupled the amount spent on peanut-allergy research in the past five years, with $3.5 million spent last year. In 2005, the institute established a food-allergy consortium, promising to spend roughly $17 million through 2010, with a peanut initiative as its first project.
In the US alone, food allergies cause about 125 deaths a year, the majority of which are blamed on peanuts.
Mohamed Ahmedna, a food scientist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, has been in the news for claiming that he has found a way to eliminate all traces of allergen from harvested peanuts. The university announced the feat in late July without disclosing proof.
Ahmedna had been working on ways to make use of the residue of peanuts after they are pressed for oil. He developed antioxidants from peanut skins that could be put into food supplements, a low-fat, high-protein meat substitute from de-fatted peanut flour and even an infant formula for developing countries.
But the endeavour was limited because of the growing incidence of pea- nut allergy. Ahm-edna and his colleagues have been experimen- ting with different methods - enz-ymes, fermentation and more - to make peanuts allergen-free. He wouldn't disclose the method other than to say it was "food-grade", meaning safe to eat.
He said the treated peanuts tasted and looked like standard peanuts, and that his technique could easily be incorporated into the processing of peanut butter. But the treated peanuts have not been tested on animals or on people. "We can't claim it's allergen-free until it's proven in humans," he says. The university says the process is "believed to be a first for food science" and that it could "be an enormous boon to the peanut industry".
Finding a way to build a better peanut has been difficult because of the peanut's properties. A peanut primarily is made up of protein - and not just one protein. It has several that are allergens, and each would need to be dealt with.
The USDA's Maleki is working to devise a hybrid peanut with as few allergens as possible. She has found two different peanuts that are each missing a major allergen and is trying to cross those to make an even less allergenic peanut. The process has been slow.
Her colleague in the project, crop scientist Thomas Isleib of North Carolina State University, calls it a "long shot".
The hybrids don't grow as well as standard varieties, and it takes several generations to see if the plants have kept their new properties. "Her outlook on this is any reduction [ of allergens] is good," Isleib says. "I take a more conservative view: that we need to get rid of all of them. I tend to view this as a long-term approach that may not pay off."
Dr Robert Wood, a paediatric allergist at Johns Hopkins University and a leader of NIAID's food-allergy consortium, is also cautious. "I don't think any of those strategies to manipulate the peanut will even remotely be the answer," he says.
Wood and other allergists are instead attempting to change the human response. Isleib, the crop scientist, agrees that the publicity surrounding the announcement of an allergen-free peanut appeared premature.
"There's glory in this, and there may be money in it, but people may be jumping the gun a bit," he says. "If it works, it's going to be big."