Six years ago, my now eight-year old nephew nearly died. Little did his grandmother know at the time, that the spoonful of peanut butter she had given him, would trigger an anaphylactic reaction within minutes. She called an ambulance which raced him to the hospital. However, his condition was worsening by the second. Halfway en route, they were met by paramedics, who would administer a lifesaving dose of epinephrine.
Food has since been a challenge for my nephew, as is the case for countless others. The constant threat of an anaphylactic reaction can sometimes make normal activities such as birthday parties and school lunches intimidating. There is a glimmer of hope though, with a promising new immunotherapy treatment, which could give back that lost sense of normalcy to those affected by this life threatening response.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are working on a new technique, which would essentially reverse food allergies. This is a major breakthrough in the world of allergies because this treatment would effectively cure people with these severe types of allergic responses. This treatment would also help people who suffer from asthma, and autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis.
The technique is currently being tested in “humanized mice”. These are mice which have no immune system of their own, and have been implanted with cells from a human immune system, such as one with a peanut allergy. The way that it works is that dendritic cells, which function as the gate-keepers of the immune system, are produced in a test tube. They are then exposed to a unique mix of proteins, a vitamin A related acid naturally occurring in the human gut, and an allergen such as peanut. The cells are then re-introduced into the mouse. The end result is that the allergic reaction is almost completely eliminated. The cells respond to the allergen in the same way that is observed in normal, non-allergic individuals.
This life-saving therapy is still a bit far off, though. As soon as Health Canada gives its approval, the first human trials could begin in about one year. If all goes well, the researchers predict the treatment will be on the market within the next five to ten years. This may be a long time to wait for some, but at least there is a promising treatment in the works which would eventually give them a sense of normalcy.