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Yogurt could be key to potential peanut allergy cure

Peanuts. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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For the 2.8 million Americans with peanut allergies, a school cafeteria can be a terrifying place. For some, a whiff of peanut can be lethal even from across a room. In less severe cases, peanuts can still cause rashes, itching and tingling in the throat, vomiting and difficulty breathing. And there is no cure.

Some place hope in experiments to create the perfect, non-allergenic peanut — one that, say, has been soaked in enzymes that remove the offending protein, or forgoes the dry roasting process, which may trigger allergic reactions.

Others work steadily at removing their allergy via immunotherapy — exposure to gradually increasing amounts of peanuts over long periods of time — in hopes of desensitizing their bodies to the delicious but potentially deadly legume.

For those going the second route, scientists in Australia have developed an immunotherapy process they say is 20 times as effective as traditional methods. It involves another lunchbox staple: yogurt.

In a study at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute near Melbourne, Australia, 60 children were treated with increasing doses of a peanut protein over the course of 18 months. Half were also given a daily dose of a probiotic called Lactobacillus rhamnosus, which is found in yogurt (granted, the dosage was equal to more than 100 of those plastic kiddie containers of Yoplait), while the rest received a placebo. Two to five weeks after the end of the treatment, each of the kids was given a peanut “challenge” to test their reaction.

More than 80 percent of the participants who had received the probiotic were able to tolerate the challenge peanut serving — a vast improvement over the paltry 4 percent of the placebo group who made it through the challenge without a reaction.

The results are a big deal for allergy researchers, who have been experimenting with oral immunotherapies like the one used in the Murdoch study since the mid-2000s, typically with mixed results. The method is high-risk — for those most allergic, exposure to even a small amount of peanut can be fatal — but lead researcher Mimi Tang said in a press release that the probiotic method promises a high likelihood of success.

Perhaps fearful that parents would try to recreate the outcome of the study with their own kids, the release also urged readers not to try the treatment at home. Those tempted by daydreams of Oreos dipped in peanut butter, or simply the desire to walk into a cafeteria without fear, should undergo immunotherapy only under strict medical supervision. It’ll take enrollment in a clinical trial and at least a year of work, but until that magical hypoallergenic peanut is produced, it may be their best bet.