London – A new drug could banish peanut allergies within weeks of being administered. In a trial, people who had been in danger of life-threatening reactions to traces of peanut could eat a whole one just a fortnight after an injection.
Scientists who developed the drug predict some patients may need only a single treatment to end the allergy altogether, while others may need a top-up jab every few months to keep it at bay.
Etokimab targets a part of the immune system involved in severe allergic responses. Researchers hope it may also work against other serious food allergies, such as milk and shellfish, as well as tree nuts.
When the immune system comes into contact with any peanut protein, it mistakenly treats it as a threat and releases a rush of chemicals including Immunoglobulin E, an antibody designed to rid the body of what it considers a dangerous invader.
This triggers the symptoms of an allergic reaction, often within seconds. These range from an itchy mouth to anaphylactic shock – where the airways narrow, blood pressure plummets and major organs rapidly shut down.
Currently, the only treatment to “cure” the allergy involves desensitisation, where patients under close medical supervision are fed gradually increasing quantities of peanut protein until their immune system has learned to stop overreacting to it.
But an estimated 15 percent experience anaphylactic shock during the process. It can also take up to two years of hospital visits every few months.
The new jab seems to work in only two weeks in about two-thirds of patients.
Etokimab was initially developed to treat eczema, but clinical trials found it had no great benefit. Scientists also tested its effect on peanut allergy as it is known to interfere with the interleukin-33 molecule, which helps trigger the chemical rush that causes serious reactions.
Fifteen adults with severe peanut allergies were given one injection of etokimab, while five others were given a dummy jab. Two weeks later, all were asked to eat 275mg of peanut protein – the same amount that’s contained within a nut.
The results, published in the medical journal JCI Insight, showed 11 of the 15 on etokimab avoided a serious reaction, while all on the dummy drug needed adrenaline jabs.
The team, at Stanford University in California, is now planning larger studies with different food allergies.
Professor Adam Fox, a consultant in paediatric allergy at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, said: “This is exciting and credible research.”