The comments were made in the current issue of The Lancet. Peanuts can cause the most severe food allergies, affecting about three million US residents a year, and causing up to 150 deaths.
The news however may put the dampeners on the free-from food market that has been enjoying sales growth of over 300 per cent in the UK since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel.
In industrialised countries allergies have been rapidly increasing in children, for causes that are not entirely understood. One study showed that between 1997 and 2002, peanut allergies in children doubled in the United States.
But help may be just around the corner, according to Wesley Burks from Paediatric Allergy and Immunology at Duke University Medical Center. Scientists at various groups around the world are working on the development of novel immunotherapeutic strategies, which would alter the immune system's response to an allergen.
Various approached are under investigation, but they are based on the principle of curbing the immune response of so-called Th2 cells, or by inducing tolerance.
"These studies offer the possibility of at least raising the threshold of the amount of peanut that it would take to cause a life-threatening allergic reaction; whether these types of treatments are likely to cause eventual clinical tolerance to develop remains to be seen," wrote Burks.
"It is likely that in the next 5 years there will be some type of immunotherapy available for peanut allergic individuals," he added.
The GM approach
Another approach that may yield results is the development of allergen-free peanut plants.
"An example would be to introduce anti-sense RNA copies of the allergen gene into the peanut plant to suppress allergen gene expression," stated Dr. Burks. "Post-translational gene silencing by mRNA degradation is another approach being investigated."
"The difficulty with this and similar approaches is that several peanut proteins are involved in IgE binding.
"The process of altering enough of the peanut allergens to make a modified peanut that is less likely to cause an allergic reaction would probably render the new peanut no longer a peanut," he added.
Despite offering a potentially life-saving solution for millions around the world, acceptance of GM peanuts is not guaranteed. The GM tag continues to be one of the biggest challenges for consumer acceptance, particularly in Europe and most notably in the UK.
All food allergies gone within a decade?
In 2006, Dutch Dutch researchers told the BA Festival of Science in England that food allergies could be consigned to the history books within a decade if the combination of biotechnology and vaccines work as planned.
Dr. Ronald van Ree from the University of Amsterdam told attendees in Norwich that the key finding of the research presented was: A clever combination of biotechnology (hypo-allergenic recombinant allergens) and vaccine-development (novel adjuvants based on anti-inflammatory molecules from pathogens) [to] provide new tools to treat food allergy.
An estimated four per cent of adults and eight per cent of children in the 380m EU population suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.
Source: The Lancet
3 May 2008, Volume 371, Pages 1538-1546
Author: A.W. Burks