US scientists hope to produce a peanut that significantly reduces the risk of allergic reaction: so far they have managed to breed a variety that lacks some of the compounds known to cause allergic reactions , and are planning further studies to produce a peanut that lacks more of, if not all of the major allergens, which can produce reactions ranging from rash to severe anaphylactic shock.

This was the subject of a presentation at the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in London on Monday, given by research scientist professor Soheila Maleki from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) branch of the US Department of Agriculture in New Orleans.

According to the American Peanut Council, peanuts are one of the most popular foods consumed by Americans, who get through more than 6 pounds of peanuts and peanut products every year.

They suggest between 1 and 2 per cent of people have some form of allergic reaction to peanuts, nuts and products made with them or their oil, with children being the most vulnerable group. Children of allergic parents are two to four times more likely to develop peanut allergy than children whose parents are not allergic.

The allergic reaction ranges in severity from person to person, some get a rash, others get digestive problems, and some experience violent anaphylactic shock that can lead to a collapse.

Also, recent evidence suggests that even trace amounts of peanuts can be enough to cause a major reaction in the people who are severely allergic.

Maleki and colleagues studied 900 varieties of peanut and found that some genetic mutations showed either lower levels or a complete lack of the major allergens (proteins that trigger allergic reactions).

“We wanted to find out if it was possible to breed these varieties without some of the allergens,” she told the media.

She and her colleagues found that some of the second generation varieties had significantly lower levels of allergens and these were less able to bind to the antibodies that trigger the allergic reactions.

“Through conventional breeding, we have shown it is possible to significantly reduce or eliminate more than one allergen,” explained Maleki, adding that they hope eventually to breed a peanut that will “lessen the development and the severity of the allergic response to peanuts”.

A summary of the ARS research Reducing the Allergenic Properties of Peanuts is available online.

Sources: EAACI, American Peanut Council.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD