Children allergic to eggs are told to avoid the food completely. But in a promising new clinical trial, doing the exact opposite appears to have reduced — and in some case eliminated — kids’ egg allergies.
Researchers in today’s New England Journal of Medicine report that 30 of the 40 egg-allergic children who ate small amounts of powdered egg white every day for 22 months became “desensitized” and experienced little or no allergic reaction. After two years on the treatment, 11 of the 40 (28%) were able to freely incorporate egg products into their everyday diet with no problem.
The federally funded study is the latest and most extensive to examine oral immunotherapy (OIT), an approach in which a person with food allergy consumes gradually increasing amounts of the food as a way to desensitize the immune system.
“Desensitization is not a new finding, although we’re beginning to learn a lot of new things about it,” says Marshall Plaut, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Allergic Mechanisms Section and a study co-author. But this study is of particular interest, he says, because it involved a substantial number of children at five clinical sites across the country and because of the long-term effects.
At 36 months, 10 of 11 kids still in the study had no adverse reactions to eggs.
The findings illustrate “another possible outcome of treating kids with food allergy,” says Plaut.
Besides avoidance, “we currently don’t have an adequate treatment for food allergies,” which can trigger severe and sometimes life-threatening reactions, says Wesley Burks, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a lead author of the study.
A study published in 2011 found approximately 8% of U.S. children, one out of 13, have a food allergy, nearly double previous estimates.
Researchers stress that oral immunotherapy is still experimental and should never be attempted at home because the risk of having a severe reaction is substantial. It’s not even ready for broad-scale use in allergists’ offices, says Stacie Jones, Chief of Allergy and Immunology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the other lead author. “There’s a lot of details to be worked out.”
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