Peanut allergy breakthrough: cure or killer?

Posted at 9:36 PM, Nov 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-24 23:36:49-05

Allergies on the rise

“It appears food allergies are dramatically increasing and pretty fast rates, exponential rates,” said Dr. Rafael Firszt, a University of Utah Allergist.

Thousands of families in Utah find themselves facing a potentially life threatening condition.

“If it’s severe, some of the fatal reactions happen within minutes,” Firszt said.

Why are more and more kids dealing with allergies?

"Currently the most popular theory is the hygiene hypothesis,” Firszt said.

Put simply, we are too clean.  Hand sanitizers, anti-bacterial soaps and over-use of antibiotics are sterilizing our lives.

“You never know what the reaction is going to be,” said Tom from his living room in Holladay.

His 6-year-old daughter Caroline is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts and shellfish. Twice, Caroline has been brought to the emergency room for allergic reactions.

“Our goal every day is to check everything she eats and avoid anything she could be allergic too,” said Caroline’s mom, Lisa.

Foods that are in question, birthday cakes, crackers and cookies, are often deemed too high a risk.

“It’s really hard to understand what these kids go through, they get excluded so often,” Lisa said.

Caroline goes to Saint Vincent Catholic School.  At lunch, she sits at a special ‘nut free’ table for kids with food allergies.

"Food allergies are becoming a bigger issue,” said Sarah Lambert, the Assistant Principal at St. Vincent.

The Food Allergy Research and Education Foundation estimates one in 13 kids have a food allergy.

Is there a cure for kids like Caroline?

The potential cure or killer

Peanut Oral Immunotherapy (OIT) is a food allergy treatment. In essence, it involves giving kids tiny amounts of peanut protein, slowly upping the daily dosage until they can eat a peanut without having a reaction.

“Showing very good and very promising results but you need to caution that with a lot of serious adverse events that have happened during those studies,” said Dr. Firszt of OIT.

The therapy is currently in a phase three FDA study.  Results are expected in 2018.

"We don't want to pre-empt the FDA because we might actually put these kids in harm’s way without actually knowing what's going on," Firszt said.

Not everyone is waiting.

“What we offer is hope.  And hope to those patients that they can actually live a more normal life,” said Dr. Douglas Jones, an allergist at Rocky Mountain Allergy Asthma and Immunology.

The clinic has offices in Layton and Murray and claims 250 success stories, with patients who have graduated OIT, able to eat foods they had been allergic to with no reaction.

“I think we are very cutting edge, I think in the future you`re going to see this become more common,” Jones said.

Melissa and Dustin Hurd have five kids, three with food allergies. Their youngest, Dallin, just became the last to graduate OIT at the clinic.

“You don’t realize until you’ve been in the shoes of someone that has food allergies what they have to go through,” Melissa said.

She points to fears limiting her kid’s activities. Scout trips canceled or postponed because of concerns an allergic reaction could start far from help. For the kids in the family not allergic to any foods, the impact has been missed dinners out, a house devoid of some of the foods they love and interruptions to their activities when a sibling gets sick.

With tears in her eyes, Melissa calls completing OIT a life changer.

“Just the quality, the time together as a family doing some of these activities that a lot of other families get to do,” she said.

The choice for families

Stories like the Hurd family’s, are wonderful cases of OIT success. They pull on the emotions of families working day and night to avoid the foods that can cause a reaction.

“It's not without risks.  You’re actively giving that child what they’re allergic to,” Firszt said.

In the large scale studies so far, Firszt said, 10 to 20 percent of the patients have needed epinephrine to stop a bad reaction.

"In some patients it can be a cure,” Jones said.

Conflicting advice leaves many parents wading through uncertainty, trying to figure out what is best for their child.

“How many kids have done it?  Have you had reactions?  Are the kids safe?  Are they graduating through the program and finishing?” asks Lisa.

Lisa and Tom are considering OIT for Caroline. The success stories are inspiring, the dire warnings are terrifying.

"One particular doctor had done some studies in this and while they were doing it, they actually, they lost a child,” Tom said.

After long talks and sleepless nights, they make their decision.

“After going to the visit we felt comfortable enough to put her into the program and do it,” Lisa said.

Caroline is taking a daily dose of peanut solution. So far she is responding well. Only time will tell if OIT proves a cure or potential killer.

An expert visits FOX 13

Michelle Fogg, Executive Director for the Utah Food Allergy Network, visited the FOX 13 News Studio Wednesday to discuss food allergies and strategies for managing them. See the video below for Fogg's interview.


Utah Food Allergy Network

Food Allergy Research and Education

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

University of Utah Health Care – Allergy

Rocky Mountain Allergy Asthma Immunology