Sheila Smith always suspected her 6-year-old daughter was allergic to peanuts. Rebecca would suddenly break out in hives whenever she ate peanut butter and jelly. Once, she had a bad reaction by merely touching the crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich.
The Smiths had no choice but to change their lifestyle. Whenever the family dined out, Smith would talk to the chefs ahead of time. Relatives and friends were warned, and all things peanut were banned from the Smith home.
"We have a peanut-free house," said Smith, a 42-year-old homemaker from Schenectady, N.Y. "Even my husband and I don't eat peanuts just in case it gets on our skin and we pass it on."
About 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies (search) and about 200 die every year from food allergy-related reactions.
There is no cure yet, but there are some promising research efforts toward lessening allergic reactions or even finding a cure. One new study is testing an asthma drug.
"From where we sit today, it looks a whole lot brighter than it did five or 10 years ago in trying to find a way to protect allergic individuals," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, who founded the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a Fairfax, Va.-based nonprofit patient advocacy group.
An allergic reaction occurs when the body's immune system, in charge of fighting infection and disease, mistakes the food as harmful and launches an attack against it. Common food allergies include nuts of all kinds, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy and wheat. Allergy sufferers usually have breathing problems, hives, vomiting and diarrhea.
For the past few years, allergists and advocates were pinning their hopes on a promising experimental drug to treat peanut allergy only to see their hopes dashed.
In a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, allergy sufferers who took the drug TNX-901 (search) were able to eat more peanuts without reacting. While not a cure, researchers saw the drug as a way to avoid dangerous complications from peanut exposure.
But the study was abruptly halted last summer because of corporate squabbling among three biotechnology companies — Genentech Inc., Novartis AG and Tanox Inc. — over potential profits.
After that study was scrapped, the companies regrouped and tested a federally approved asthma drug on peanut allergy sufferers instead. The goal is to see whether Xolair (search), a drug for people with serious allergic asthma, will work for people with peanut allergy (search).
Last June, researchers started enrolling patients in clinical trials at 20 sites, mostly in the United States. Although advocates were initially devastated by the demise of the TNX-901 study, they are encouraged by the new study since both drugs are similar in controlling a molecule that causes sufferers' severe reactions.
Allergy drugs are developed mainly to stave off a reaction and not necessarily to cure the allergy. In the search for a cure, some scientists are banking on a different approach to eliminate reactions altogether — through allergy shots.
Last November, researchers at four California universities testing a small sample of dogs announced they developed experimental vaccines that reduced or eliminated allergic reactions to peanuts, milk and wheat in canines. The vaccine is a long way from human testing, but researchers said it helped them understand the science behind how the vaccine works.
"Our strategy using vaccines is to induce an immune response that protects and also lasts for long periods of time," said Dr. Dale Umetsu, formerly of the Stanford University School of Medicine, which helped develop the vaccine. Umetsu is now a professor at Harvard University.
Right now, the only way for food allergy sufferers to avoid a potentially life-threatening reaction is to shun all foods containing allergens, which is not always easy to do. Many allergy sufferers also carry around shots of epinephrine, a form of adrenaline given to people suffering severe allergic reactions.
When the Smiths attended a holiday gathering at their church last year, Rebecca wandered to the buffet table and unknowingly munched on a honey and nuts granola bar. She immediately broke out in hives and red rashes. Smith became so afraid that she did not leave her daughter's side.
"We're more careful about eating out," Smith said. "I don't want to lose her."