Nut allergies sicken millions of American adults and children, who have life-threatening reactions to them every year. But U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists this week reported they are developing a way to process cashews and potentially other nuts in ways that could make them safer for people who are allergic to them.
The research, presented a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco, involves modifying proteins in tree nuts and peanuts that trigger an immune response in people who are allergic. The response is launched by antibodies that which recognize and latch onto the proteins.
But Chris Mattison, a researcher with the Agricultural Research Service branch of the USDA, said that changing the shape of the proteins makes it harder for the immune system to target them and might be a way to make them less dangerous to people with allergies.
"The only widely accepted practice for preventing an allergic reaction to nuts is strict avoidance — stay away from the food," noted Mattison. "Clinical trials to test immunotherapy are underway, but we're approaching it from an agricultural perspective rather than medical. Can we change the food, instead of treating the person, so we can eliminate or reduce severe reactions?"
For those with allergies, responses to nuts can range from mild itching in the mouth or skin to life-threatening anaphylaxis, which makes it hard to breathe. Once every three minutes, someone in the U.S. ends up in the emergency room due to a food allergy reaction — that adds up to about 200,000 visits a year.
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