Sounds unthinkable, but this is the reality for over 3 million Americans who suffer from nut allergies (they might be able to blame their moms). And while I can only imagine what it must be like to avoid every food that could contain a nut product or that may have been in contact with one, I’m willing to bet that it’s even more annoying to actually have an allergic reaction…especially when that reaction can include anaphylactic shock and death.
This is the part where science fixes everything: researchers at Northwestern University have developed a technique that effectively cures peanut allergies in mice, and would presumably work in humans as well. Not only that, but the technique could easily be applied to eradicate an allergy to eggs, or strawberries, or shellfish…whatever your immune system has been keeping you from enjoying.
Food allergies are weird. Basically, you eat something, it gets broken down, and sometimes the food has proteins in it that the body doesn’t digest. In food allergy sufferers, the immune system will recognize this foreign protein and raise hell about it (i.e. trigger inflammation). When you’ve inadvertently ingested some disease-causing bacteria, this is a great response; when you’ve eaten a chocolate bar that has brushed against peanut dust in some factory, this response is just unfortunate.
Here’s the undigested peanut protein that enters your bloodstream after you eat a peanut product (maybe it was in your food by accident or maybe you succumbed to the undeniable greatness that is Reese’s peanut butter cups):
And not all of your blood cells have a problem with peanut protein:
Red blood cells are apathetic to peanut protein. It’s white blood cells that are the problem, specifically helper T cells. You can consider helper T cells the tattletales of the immune system. No one likes a tattletale.
And those helper T cells are going to blow the freaking whistle. By which I mean they’re going to tell B cells about peanut protein:
And when B cells find out about peanut protein, they get pissed. That is, they attack peanut protein with tons of antibodies called IgE:
Once the antibodies are out, a whole slew of inflammatory cells and molecules are recruited, causing the classic allergic reactions like hives, itchiness, and airway constriction.
So back to those scientists at Northwestern. They tethered peanut protein to white blood cells, then injected those cells into mice with peanut allergies. (Mice have peanut allergies? Yes, the mice were developed years ago at Northwestern, specifically for studying this food allergy.)
This process effectively helped the immune systems of these mice become acclimated to peanut proteins. When the mice were subsequently fed peanut extract, they exhibited little-to-no immune response; without the procedure, they would have gone into anaphylatic shock. This process was repeated with an egg protein (egg allergies are also quite common), and similar anti-allergy benefits were observed.
So there you have it! Maybe one day food allergies will be no big deal, thanks to a procedure like this one. Do you have a food allergy, but wish you didn’t? Tell us about it in a comment!
Des Roches A, Bégin P, Infante-Rivard C, Paradis J, & Paradis L (2011). Peanut allergy and the impact of maternal consumption during pregnancy and breast-feeding. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 128 (1) PMID: 21565392
Smarr CB, Hsu CL, Byrne AJ, Miller SD, & Bryce PJ (2011). Antigen-fixed leukocytes tolerize th2 responses in mouse models of allergy. Journal of immunology (Baltimore, Md. : 1950), 187 (10), 5090-8 PMID: 21976774