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Researchers take a crack at hypoallergenic peanut

by HELENA OLIVIERO The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 08, 2014 10:50 AM

Hypoallergenic peanuts may have moved one step closer to reality.

The stakes are high. Peanuts cause serious allergic reactions in about 1 percent of the U.S. population, equal to about 2.8 million people.

Researchers at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University have recently developed a process that reduces allergens in peanuts by 98 percent.

The treatment reduces two key allergens: Ara h 1 to undetectable levels and Ara h 2 by up to 98 percent. The treatment involves soaking de-shelled and roasted peanuts in a solution of food-grade enzymes. The resulting peanuts, which look and taste like regular roasted peanuts, are not genetically modified, according to a statement from the university.

The effectiveness of the process was demonstrated in human clinical trials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, using skin-prick tests, according to the university. The patented process will now move into the next step of development.

There’s been no timetable given on when these peanuts might hit grocery shelves.

It’s not the only attempt at such a product, and there’s strong interest. Studies show the number of children living with a peanut allergy has tripled between 1997 and 2008, and for reasons not well understood.

Highly sensitive children and adults can develop anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction, in as little as a few seconds from ingesting extremely small amounts.

Currently, the only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid peanuts and peanut products altogether. But peanuts are hard to avoid, especially outside the home — at restaurants or in hidden traces in school cafeterias.

It makes this area of research exciting — and also gives hope to many living with severe peanut allergies. But many believe it’s too early to hail this latest development as a success and wonder whether a truly hypoallergenic peanut is possible.

In 2008, researchers at the University of Georgia used genetic engineering to develop a peanut plant that did not have allergy-contributing proteins.

Peggy Ozias-Akins, a professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and colleagues were able to create a genetically modified plant with less allergens, but she couldn’t guarantee that it was hypoallergenic.

She said it’s a challenging undertaking because the allergens in peanuts are also proteins the peanut needs for growth and development. In other words, if you removed the 12 or 13 proteins with some level of allergenicity — you wouldn’t be able to grow a peanut.

“Given the number of allergenic proteins in peanuts, to make a nonallergic peanut is essentially impossible,” Ozias-Akins said in an interview.

She questions whether this latest process, which reduces the allergens by 98 percent, would be enough for those with severe allergies. And she also raised concerns about how the soaking process would be done, and monitored, on a large scale.

Still, even if researchers fall short in being able to create an allergy-free peanut, Ozias-Akins believes it is possible to develop a peanut with significantly reduced allergens so that it will not cause life-threatening reactions.

Dr. Jianmei Yu, one of the researchers who developed the process at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, said the treated peanuts also could be used in immunotherapy. “Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts can build up a patient’s resistance to the allergens,” Yu said in a news release.

Meanwhile, Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, raised concerns about whether reducing allergens by 98 percent is enough for people with severe allergies. In an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he called for more review and research.

Archer also said such a product could be confusing to consumers: Is it really hypoallergenic or just less allergenic and if so, who can safely consume the product?

For Karen Harris, founder of Food Allergy Kids of Atlanta, families with children with peanut allergies tend to be wary of new research and products.

“We are excited by the fact there is research being done in this area and we are hopeful,” Harris said.

“But we don’t believe we are close to having a cure anytime in the near future. And for those who are newly diagnosed, the keys are still education and the management of the food allergy. ...

“While avoidance and risk reduction measures are necessary in helping to avoid a reaction, it’s critical that food allergic individuals should always be prepared to treat an allergic reaction by always carrying their auto-injection epinephrine devices, emergency action plan and other medications at all times.”

And Harris said while she doesn’t expect families with food allergies to necessarily be eager to try a new product with reduced allergens, she believes such new products could help reduce anxiety.

“If a parent knows children are eating a peanut butter sandwich with hypoallergenic peanuts, the anxiety would lessen about having their child with a severe allergy sit at the same table,” she said.

WHO’S BEHIND THIS?

The process at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to significantly reduce allergens in peanuts was developed by Dr. Jianmei Yu, a food and nutrition researcher in A&T’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, and two former A&T faculty members.

The university signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Xemerge, a Toronto-based firm that commercializes emerging technologies in food, agriculture and a variety of other fields.

Xemerge has opened an office at the Gateway University Research Park south campus in Greensboro, N.C.

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