University of Florida

Fighting Food Allergies

Developing a Risk-free Peanut

Written Dec. 2006.

Peanut allergies are the most common and often the most severe of all food allergies. Nearly three million Americans are allergic to nuts, and about 150 people die each year from allergic reactions.

Fortunately, help is on the way. Researchers from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences may have taken an important first step toward creating a non-allergenic peanut.

Of the many types of protein molecules found in peanuts, twenty types seem to trigger an overblown immune response in those with peanut sensitivities. Three of these types produce the strongest responses, and UF's researchers have found that one of the most allergenic proteins is sometimes produced with a portion missing--resulting in a form that apparently doesn’t trigger a bad reaction by human immune systems.

When the normal form of this protein was exposed to blood samples from three allergenic patients, it set off a severe reaction. However, the altered form produced no reaction at all, showing that the patients’ immune defenses didn’t recognize this altered protein.

As promising as this sounds, the future of an allergen-free peanut is far from certain. More testing is needed to determine whether the lack of reaction to the altered protein is consistent for a much larger and more diverse sampling. It is possible that the altered protein may be undetectable by some blood types, but produce the same response as the normal protein in others.

If it is determined that this altered protein never produces a reaction in all samples, researchers could then try to find or create altered versions of the other twenty proteins that trigger allergic reactions. These altered proteins would then have to be put together to produce a peanut plant that would replace those used by peanut farmers today.

Development of an allergen-free peanut could be twenty years or more in the making. However, the discovery of the altered protein is an important step--it increases scientists' understanding of protein structures. This knowledge could also be applied to soybeans, tree nuts, and other foods that produce allergic reactions.

Scientists may not need to build a better peanut. Understanding why the human immune system doesn’t overreact to this particular form of protein could play a vital role in other efforts to protect those with peanut sensitivities, such as creating a peanut allergy vaccine.


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