Probiotics could be the key to curing children of peanut allergies, and might also point the way to breakthroughs on treating any food allergy at all. 

New research published recently in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal finds that a course of probiotics and peanut oral immunotherapy helped children kick their peanut allergies and remain desensitized to peanuts for at least four years.  

These study results suggest the addition of probiotics to treatment could lead to higher rates of success than if children underwent oral immunotherapy on its own. A randomized controlled trial comparing the effects of oral immunotherapy and oral immunotherapy plus probiotics would be the next step in assessing its viability as a treatment, said study author Mimi Tang, a researcher at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, in a Lancet audio interview about her findings. 

“We were very excited by these findings because to us, it really shows that the probiotic peanut combination can actually change the immune response to peanuts and provide benefits, long term, years after having stopped the treatment,” said Tang. 

Tang’s original research on probiotics and peanut allergies gathered 56 children with peanut allergies and divided them into two groups. One group received a placebo treatment and the other would ingest the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a bacterium commonly found in yogurt, and increasing amounts of peanut protein every day for 18 months. Then, after waiting for about one month, the children ate peanuts to see if the food triggered a reaction.

A whopping 82 percent of the children taking the probiotic showed no reaction to the peanuts they were once allergic to, compared to only four percent of the children in the placebo group. 

Tang’s newest study invited those same children to participate in another study on peanut allergies four years after the original experimental treatment. In the follow up study, the participants stopped eating peanuts for eight weeks and then were “challenged” with peanuts again to see if it produced a reaction. Of the 12 probiotics-treated children from the original study who agreed to go through with it, seven remained completely reaction-free when they ate peanuts. Of the 15 children from the placebo side of the original study, only one didn’t have a reaction. 

Moreover, Tang found that 16 of the 24 children who had been originally treated with probiotics and peanut proteins continued to eat peanuts in the four years since the first study, compared to only one out of 24 children from the placebo group. 

More than three million people in the U.S. have an allergy to peanuts. It’s the most common cause of food-induced anaphylaxis, which is when the throat swells, airways become constricted and blood pressure drops. The severity of the potential reaction, as well as the stress of trying to avoid eating such a common ingredient, can create anxiety and lower quality of life for both children and parents. 

Tang said she was excited about the results because it could have the potential to lift the allergy burden off families for good. 

“We had children who came into the study allergic to peanuts, having to avoid peanut in their diet, being very vigilant around that, carrying a lot of anxiety with that, and at the end of treatment and even four years later, many of these children who had benefitted from our probiotic peanut therapy could now live like a child who didn’t have peanut allergy,” said Tang. 

Perhaps even more exciting is the potential for the probiotics approach to be able to cure people with any food allergy, Tang said, adding that more research needs to be conducted to explore that possibility.

Scientists believe that probiotics may be able to help repopulate the “good bacteria” that help prevent us from developing allergies in the first place, said Dr. Purvi Parikh, a pediatric allergist at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health.

“Processed foods, over sanitizing, and being ‘too clean’ may explain why our guts have shifted away from the good bacteria that is protective against developing allergies,” said Parikh, who was not involved in Tang’s research.

Up to four percent of all Americans have some kind of food allergy, and the condition is more common among babies and young children. However, don’t expect yogurt alone to protect against food allergies; a person would have to eat about 20 tubs of it a day to get the amount of probiotic Tang used for the daily treatments. 

Experts used to caution parents against introducing peanut allergies in early childhood to avoid a potential reaction, but recent evidence has found that this approach may be inadvertently leading to more allergies. To prevent deadly peanut allergies, researchers now say parents should introduce peanut products as early as four months old if their baby is at a high allergy risk.

For the millions of families who have a child with serious peanut allergies, Tang’s research offers hope that children who were once allergic to peanuts will one day be able to kick the allergy for good.

“Every child must be evaluated on a case by case basis because no two allergic individuals are the same, and we are still studying the safest way to proceed,” said Parikh. “However, this does provide a possible treatment alternative for these children that did not exist before, and that is exciting.”

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