It's not a cure, but a new drug may ease the worries of the 3 million Americans who have peanut allergies.
The experimental medication, which is called TNX-901, increases the threshold of an allergic reaction from half a peanut to approximately nine peanuts. Although that may not seem like much to peanut lovers, it has been estimated that most of the 50 to 100 deaths each year from peanut allergies occur after ingesting only one or two nuts.
Although a study on the drug was limited to those with peanut allergies, researchers say it could have a much wider impact.
"This drug may well also apply to other nut allergies and other food allergies, so it could affect six million to eight million people," says Dr. Donald Leung, colead author of the study.
People who have peanut allergies live in a culinary minefield because their condition forces them to eat defensively. They or their caregivers must examine ingredient labels with a fine-tooth comb and study the manufacturing process to determine if there are any peanuts or peanut products in the food. They also must ask detailed questions about restaurant fare. Allergic reactions are possible if even a trace amount of peanut is ingested.
PREVENTION RATHER THAN REACTION
The allergic reaction takes place when the body's immune system tries to protect itself from a substance it mistakenly identifies as harmful. The body creates antibodies against the food. The antibodies can cause something as minor as an itch or as lethal as swelling of the throat, obstructing breathing.
Avoidance has always been the best way to combat the allergy, but that's not always possible. The most common treatment for someone who has an allergic reaction is a shot of a lifesaving drug called epinephrine, sold under the brand name EpiPen. However, studies have found that only a small number of people with allergies carry the remedy with them.
TNX-901 is the first drug that could prevent the allergic reactions in the first place. "It's a buffer that would protect against most reactions from accidentally ingested peanuts," says Traci Tavares, a spokeswoman for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. "Folks with a peanut allergy have never had that peace of mind."
Patients would have to get shots regularly and still watch what they eat, the investigators say.