Observer staff and wire reports
Three years ago, even the whiff of a peanut would cause Liam Park to sneeze, his lips to blow up and his eyes to swell.
But last week, the 7-year-old Charlotte boy and his mother, Jennifer Park, were able to ride in a car with four other people snacking on pistachios and peanuts.
He didn't sneeze once.
Since he was 4, Liam has been involved in a pioneering study conducted by Duke University Medical Center and Arkansas Children's Hospital that relies on a scary treatment – children allergic to peanuts were given tiny amounts of the very food that once made them ill.
The study, released Sunday, is the first evidence that life-threatening peanut allergies may be cured one day.
“I'm not ready to say he's cured, but I can tell his tolerance is building up and that his immune system is stronger,” said Jennifer Park.
Five other children involved in the study are now allergy-free. The study was unveiled at a meeting of the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology in Washington, D.C. More rigorous research is under way to confirm the pilot and if it pans out, the approach could mark a major advance for an allergy that afflicts 1.8 million Americans.
Doctors closely monitor the children in case they need rescuing, and there's no way to dice a peanut as small as the treatment doses required.But over several years, the children's bodies learned to tolerate peanuts. Immune-system tests show no sign of remaining allergy in the five youngsters, and others can withstand amounts that once would have left them wheezing or worse, the lead researcher, Dr. Wesley Burks of Duke Medical reported Sunday.
In Liam Park's case, he's given daily doses of peanut flour that is the equivalent of 6 1/2 peanuts, his mother said.
He's had no reactions.
As for the five allergy-free children, the Duke and Arkansas doctors say they'll have to track them for several years longer before they pronounce them cured.
“We're optimistic that they have lost their peanut allergy,” said Burks, Duke's chief of pediatric allergy and immunology. “We've not seen this before medically. We'll have to see what happens to them.”
For parents of children with peanut allergies, that could mean no more fear that something as simple as sharing a friend's cookie at school might lead to a trip to the emergency room.
Millions of people have food allergies and peanut allergy is considered the most dangerous, with life-threatening reactions possible from trace amounts. It accounts for most of the 30,000 emergency-room visits and up to 200 deaths attributed to food allergies each year. Although some children outgrow peanut allergies, that's rare among the severely affected.
There's no way to avoid a reaction other than avoiding peanuts. Those allergy shots that help people allergic to pollen and other environmental triggers reduce or eliminate symptoms – by getting used to small amounts of the allergen – are too risky for food allergies.
News of the study brings some comfort to parents.
When he was 1, Alexander Fultz of Charlotte picked up a peanut that had dropped to the floor and immediately broke out in hives. His parents treated him with Benadryl.
Later, an uncle who had just eaten a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich kissed Alexander, now 4, on the neck. He broke out in hives again, said his father, Troy Fultz.
The Fultzes' only treatment for Alexander has been avoiding peanuts.
“To have a cure or at least a program to build up his tolerance to the allergy would relieve us immensely,” Troy Fultz said. “Not as much at home, but when he's at school or other places. We can't control what other people are going to do.”
Last year, Boyd Safrit thought his 1-year-old son, Aaron, was old enough to try a little peanut butter. Aaron immediately began choking.
Boyd thought he was choking on the sticky peanut butter. His wife saw that Aaron's face was swollen and blotchy and realized he was allergic to peanuts.
They called 911.
“It was scary, really scary,” Boyd said.
Aaron's allergist told the Safrits about the Duke program, but said Aaron, who is 2 now, was too young. For now, their only protection for Aaron is continuing to read labels and keep him away from peanuts, but they plan to look into the Duke study.
“It is certainly something that as it progresses we will keep an eye on,” he said.