Skin patch may bring treatment for peanut allergy a step closer

A new trial offers hope for peanut allergy sufferers
A new trial offers hope for peanut allergy sufferers Photo: Getty Images

Chloe was 18 months old when her mother, Robyn, suspected she was allergic to peanuts.

"She would come out in hives if my husband touched her skin after having had peanuts," Robyn recalls. 

Chloe had allergy testing at age four, and a diagnosis of anaphylaxis (potentially life-threatening allergy) to peanuts was confirmed.

"It was frightening," Robyn says of the diagnosis.

"But at the same time we knew that in today's society, [with] all the awareness around peanut allergies, that it was manageable."

She says her biggest issue has been trying to educate Chloe – who is now nine - about her allergy and its potential severity, "without completely scaring her".

Now, a new trial offers hope for peanut allergy sufferers.

The trial involves placing a wearable skin patch on people with peanut allergies. The patch delivers small amounts of peanut protein through the skin in a treatment known as epicutaneous immunotherapy (or EPIT).

While this new trial is still ongoing, the results of its first year were published online in October 2016 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

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For the trial, 74 volunteers (aged between four and 25 years) were given either a high-dose or low-dose patch containing peanut protein, or a placebo patch.

After one year, researchers assessed two outcomes, one of which was the participants' ability to consume at least 10 times more peanut protein than they could before starting the trial.

The low and high-dose groups had 46 per cent and 48 per cent "treatment success" according to that parameter, compared to 12 per cent in the placebo group.

The effects were greatest in children aged four to 11 years.

The patches - which were applied daily for the period of 52 weeks - caused no serious adverse reactions and were well-tolerated.

While the results of this study seem promising, Professor Mimi Tang, Group Leader of Allergy & Immune Disorders at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, says we shouldn't get our hopes up just yet.

She says that even though the study reported a '10-fold increase' in the dose of peanuts participants could tolerate while wearing the patch, that increase wasn't huge.

In fact, she says that those who wore the higher-dose patch would only be able to tolerate "half a peanut" before having an adverse reaction.

Meanwhile, the group who wore the lower-dose patch would only be able to consume "less than a third of a peanut" before they, too, had an allergic reaction.

In other words, Professor Tang explains that, "…there would be no protection [for the child] if there was accidental exposure to more than half a peanut".

She consequently questions whether that degree of protection provides "a real life benefit" to a person suffering from a peanut allergy.

However, she believes further studies are warranted as the patch may help modify the body's allergic response to peanuts.

Professor Tang also said that, because the greatest beneficial effects were seen predominantly in children aged less than eleven years, this might suggest the immune system is more 'open' to this therapy at younger ages.

While she is wary about overstating the positive effects of this study, Professor Tang reassures there are "a number of research groups" currently working on potential treatments for food allergy.

One such study, being undertaken at The Murdoch Children's Research Institute, combines the use of a probiotic with peanut oral immunotherapy. Professor Tang says the results of this seem promising.

Robyn hopes that a treatment for peanut allergies is in sight.

"As Chloe gets older… she will be faced with situations she needs to manage herself," notes Robyn.

"I believe a cure would obviously alleviate not only her allergy - but [also] the fear involved."