Quest for a Cure – Where the Research Stands
Every family affected by food allergy is hoping for a cure. And many researchers, including those in the Consortium for Food Allergy Research and other groups internationally, have been working for years towards that goal. The reality today is that oral immunotherapy (OIT) is still experimental, and has not been proven the “quick” cure for which everyone hoped.
Indeed, Dr. Kari Nadeau, whose important research is featured in the Times article, has clarified that the stories in the article are of “three people and their families; no generalizations can be made from their stories; there is no cure at the current time; and any therapy for food allergy is experimental, risky, and might not work long term.”
In the Spring 2013 issue of Allergic Living, Dr. Sicherer reviews the current state of OIT research. He explains that there is evidence that OIT, during active treatment, can increase the amount of the allergen that a person can eat before developing symptoms. However, there are several ongoing questions and challenges, such as some participants who cannot move forward due to allergic reactions, unexpected reactions to doses previously tolerated, and loss of protection, sometimes quickly, once daily allergen doses are stopped.
A recent follow-up study from Johns Hopkins University of 32 children who had completed milk OIT raises additional concerns that the desensitized state achieved may not last long-term. For example, 38 percent of the study subjects were having frequent symptoms from milk three to five years after the trial ended (19 percent had symptoms severe enough to require epinephrine). So, while early OIT results may be encouraging, there is much research that remains to be done.
Importance of Philanthropy and Research Participation
Large, comprehensive research studies will be required over the coming years to eventually identify successful treatments for food allergy. The main challenges to that goal will be securing adequate funding and research participants. The Times article highlights the positive difference individuals can make through grassroots fundraising and participation in research trials. As philanthropic efforts for food allergy research grow, the allocation of those research dollars to local communities will be an important consideration.
Much of the early research in OIT and other potential food allergy treatments have been conducted among a small subset of the food allergy population. Going forward, it will be critically important to recruit larger numbers of participants, in an inclusive manner, being careful to allow access to research for all groups, from diverse geographic, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
The Times article focused needed attention on food allergy, and even more beneficial, the discussion that has ensued has provided the opportunity to correct some important misconceptions. Much more research will be needed before safe and effective treatments for food allergy are available. Our collective hope for a cure should motivate us to support those research efforts. In the meantime, until there is a cure, we should all strive to help those affected by food allergy to reach their potential – living safe, healthy, and highly fulfilling lives.
Dr. Sharma is Associate Chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C. and Director of the Food Allergy Program. He is also the site director for the National Institutes of Health Allergy and Immunology fellowship program. He co-authors “The Food Allergy Experts” column in the American Edition of Allergic Living magazine. Questions submitted below will be considered for answer in the magazine.