Modified peanuts may cut risk of allergic reactions

A "low-allergy" peanut is being developed which could revolutionise eating out for allergy sufferers. Researchers from the US Department of Agriculture are creating "naturally bred" peanuts which are not genetically modified (GM) and which pose little risk to sufferers.

If experiments are successful, the nuts could be sold widely in supermarkets and may be used by food manufacturers to prevent the nut "contamination" associated with production lines. Restaurants may also use them to reduce risks for customers with nut allergies.

Professor Soheila Maleki, whose team is working on the project, presented her findings at a European allergy conference in London yesterday. She said the nuts were different from others that have been worked on because they did not involve GM.

An anti-allergy vaccine based on the same principle could also be created, she said, although she stressed that further research was needed. Professor Maleki's team has been breeding peanuts that are missing two major allergens (proteins that cause allergy).

One benefit of a low-allergy peanut is that if children ate them, they would be less likely to develop an allergy to peanuts. "And people that are already allergic would need to have a much higher dose before they suffered a reaction," Professor Maleki said. "In the case of accidental ingestion, there would be much less of a reaction."

Another use of the peanuts would be in immunotherapy: they could be used to help patients who have an established allergy to become "desensitised" by giving them a low dose of peanuts over a certain period of time. Clinical trials using peanuts to desensitise patients have already produced some success.

Professor Maleki hopes low-allergy peanuts could be successfully produced in the next two to five years. Skin-tests on patients would then be carried out to check their allergic responses to them.

Leanne Metcalf, director of research at Asthma UK, said: "Despite the fact that food allergies trigger asthma symptoms in one in five people with the condition, anaphylactic reactions due to peanut allergy are far more common and life-threatening than asthma attacks due to this type of allergy.

"However, we welcome any new approach that can help reduce the number of hospital admissions for asthma triggered by allergic reactions to foods, and look forward to hearing more about this avenue of research."