For a person allergic to peanuts, nothing is simple.
Besides not being able to eat peanut products, even exposure to small amounts of peanuts ingested accidentally as a hidden food ingredient could result in a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Stacie Jones, M.D., and her research team at the UAMS-affiliated Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), are working to protect people who have peanut and other food allergies from experiencing severe allergic reactions.
“The reason we’re so interested in the work we do is that it’s very disconcerting for patients and their families to live in a world where the rest of us just eat whatever we want without having to think so much about it,” Jones said. “To them, their world is filled with potential landmines that can make eating a life-threatening situation.”
Jones is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Physiology & Biophysics in the UAMS College of Medicine. She is also section chief of Allergy and Immunology.
Food allergies have been on the rise.
“We know that in the last 20 years, the prevalence of peanut allergies has actually doubled,” Jones said.
These therapies hold tremendous promise for the future.Scientists believe the increase could be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors and diet. There is also a heightened sense of awareness among the general public.
“Our environment has changed. The way we process foods has changed. The way we introduce foods has changed and so have breastfeeding rates.” Jones said. “Genetics have not changed. That’s the constant. It’s likely many of those factors could impact food allergy prevalence.”
The UAMS food allergy research team is part of a multi-institutional consortium that has found positive results in the testing of potential new treatment approaches for people with food allergy. The approaches include having participants ingest a food powder, place an allergen extract under the tongue, or wear an allergen patch, all designed to eventually decrease their sensitivity to the allergen.
“These therapies hold tremendous promise for the future,” said Jones. “We’ve really been working to understand the immune system and what is going on with foods in combination with these therapies in the body.”
She said 90 percent of food allergies stem from eight foods: milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish. Of those foods, most people do not outgrow their allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Researchers at ACHRI spend much of their focus on these life-long allergens. In Arkansas, about 30,000 children live with food allergies. ACHRI researchers have been at the forefront of developing new therapies for those patients. Many of the studies that use immunotherapies have moved from the laboratory into human subjects.
“We have four or five immunotherapies that we can offer in the form of a clinical study,” Jones said. “These therapies often make a big difference in our study participants and their disease. It’s very, very rewarding to see – especially compared to 10-15 years ago when we were just saying ‘Keep avoiding. Trust us. Hopefully you’ll outgrow it.”
“We’ve had enough success with some of the immunotherapies that new companies have been established or are refocusing their work to put immunotherapies into FDA-regulated trials, working toward registration of new products,” Jones said.
Jones hopes the therapies that have been beneficial to the study participants will soon be on the shelf for allergists to use in their clinics. She says it may happen in as quickly as five years.
“There is a lot more attention on food allergy and the impact it has on patients and families. And that’s good. Food allergies are not only life-threatening, but they’re life-changing for both children and adults in their daily lives.”
Jones says she and the other researchers owe much of their advances to the study participants.
“They spend a lot of time, usually many years of their lives on these intense therapies to see if they’re going to have a good outcome or not,” Jones said. “We’ve had an incredible response from people who want to make a difference not only in their own lives but also for future patients. The really cool thing is that relationships are built and it’s nice to see the science that follows along with that. It’s a great way to come to work every day.
The researchers have high hopes that newer and more impactful therapies are on the horizon.
“We remain excited and focused on making a difference in the lives of our patients and families,” Jones said.