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Thursday, December 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hope seen for deadliest food allergy

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON--Four times in her 13 years, Aly Rush has been raced to the emergency room with a life-threatening reaction to a staple of Americana: peanuts.

In preschool once, a classmate's peanut butter-smeared hands set off an emergency, even though Aly was sitting at another table. Once she broke out in hives simply by breathing air in an airplane in which peanuts were served.

Even a bite tainted with peanuts or peanut oil is so dangerous that at 13, Aly already scrutinizes ingredients on food packages and grills restaurant waiters before eating.

Now she is in a groundbreaking experiment, getting once-a-month shots that might offer the first hope of minimizing the daily threat of this allergy for thousands of Americans.

It will take several years of study to know if the experimental shots work--and if they do, this so-called "anti-IgE" treatment won't be a cure. But scientists hope the drug could control a molecule that causes sufferers' severe reactions, so that patients who accidentally eat peanuts might itch or swell up but won't fear dying.

"Patients are very desperate because there aren't any real treatments," says Dr. Donald Leung, pediatric allergy chief at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center.

The experimental therapy involves an antibody code-named Hu-901 and made by Houston-based Tanox.

A little more than half a percent of the U.S. population is allergic to peanuts, suffering what scientists consider the most dangerous food allergy. While mildly allergic people may only suffer hives, the highly allergic rapidly go into anaphylactic shock and must always carry shots of epinephrine to treat that life-threatening condition. Several dozen sufferers are estimated to die each year.

Nobody is sure why peanuts are so allergenic. But peanuts contain more complex proteins, a cause of food allergies, than many other foods.

Experts suspect the allergy is on the rise, partly because children eat peanut products at earlier ages, and early exposure increases the risk that someone susceptible to the allergy will actually develop it, says Dr. Wesley Burks of Arkansas Children's Hospital. He recommends not letting most children have any peanut-containing foods for the first year of life--and not until age 3 if allergies run in their family.

Half of all allergy sufferers accidentally eat peanuts at least once every two years. Why? Even foods that are not supposed to contain peanuts really can, such as when manufacturers use the same machine to mix up, say, peanut butter ice cream that they later use to mix plain chocolate.

Lessening that risk is the hope behind the new experiment.

IgE, or immunoglobulin-E, plays a major role in asthma and numerous allergies, stimulating immune cells to overreact when exposed to certain allergens. Experimental antibodies can sop up IgE. In large studies, an experimental asthma shot called Xolair is proving fairly effective at countering asthma-triggering IgE.

Scientists suspect sopping up peanut-sensitive IgE might work even better--because there's more than one asthma trigger but IgE is the sole culprit in peanut allergies.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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