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Scope 46 - Changing the way we think about food allergy

25 October 2011

Latest research at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research has highlighted a process by which children might become allergic to peanuts, without ever tasting them.

In July 2011, Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom and Prof Graham Le Gros were awarded funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand to investigate the early immune responses that take place during the development of food allergy, of which peanut allergy is the most dangerous and long-lasting.

For a child to develop an allergy to foods such as peanuts, their immune system has to first see the peanuts and become sensitised to them.  It is the resulting runaway immune response that is responsible for the symptoms of food allergy such as swelling, skin irritations and breathing difficulties.

However, parents of allergic children will often say that their child has never eaten peanuts, so how are the immune systems of these children becoming sensitised?  Dr Forbes-Blom believes that in special situations it can be through their skin.

Using unique laboratory food allergy models, Dr Forbes-Blom and colleagues showed that exposure of the skin to peanuts can lead to the development of peanut specific allergic immune responses.  Their work also highlighted the importance of concomitant Staph infections in amplifying this process in individuals with eczema.

Collectively Dr Forbes-Blom’s findings, which were published in the international journal of Clinical & Experimental Allergy, support previous clinical data that under some circumstances, having a child’s skin come into contact with certain foods such as peanuts is all that is required for them to become allergic to them – something that needs to be taken into consideration when developing treatments for food allergy sufferers.