Creating an allergy-free peanut is deceptively simple: Roast, shell and peel it, then soak it in an enzymatic solution that removes about 98 percent of the allergens within the peanut.
But the patented process, developed by researchers at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, could be life-changing for people with peanut allergies, though some scientists and organizations warn that there’s still a long way to go.
The key to the peanut-cleansing treatment is alcalase, an enzyme that breaks down proteins in peanuts. Alcalase is used in some laundry detergents to remove protein-based stains like grass and blood, according to the National Centre for Biotechnology Education in the U.K. After the peanuts are roasted, shelled and peeled, they’re soaked in a solution containing alcalase, which reduces two major allergens, Ara h 1 and Ara h 2, in the peanuts.
About 3 million people in the U.S. are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, according to nonprofit Food Allergy Research and Education. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of children with peanut allergies tripled.
Dr. Jianmei Yu, a food and nutrition scientist at North Carolina A&T, and two former North Carolina A&T faculty members started working on the treatment in 2005 and patented the process in 2012. Treated peanuts can be used whole, in pieces or as flour and can also be used in immunotherapy to help people develop a resistance to allergens, Yu said.
Unlike other processes, Yu’s approach does not involve genetic modification of peanuts, chemicals or radiation and uses simple food-processing equipment.
The peanut treatment was tested in human clinical trials using skin-prick tests at UNC-Chapel Hill, and in 2014 A&T signed a licensing agreement with Xemerge, a placeholder firm for Alrgn Bio, a Greensboro-based company. The peanuts are being tested on mice at UNC-Chapel Hill to monitor their potential effects on humans, said Alrgn CEO Kit McQuiston. If those tests are successful, the next step is oral tests on humans.
The company’s goal is to make life safer for people with peanut allergies, not to create peanuts those with allergies can eat, McQuiston said. They want schools, airports and other public venues to use their products so that people with peanut allergies wouldn’t run the risk of exposure.
“Peanuts are everywhere,” McQuiston said. “If we can replace some of the peanuts out there, we can make the world much safer for people with food allergies.”
Jodi Stokes’ son, Kevin, had an allergic reaction to peanuts when he was 1. They’ve participated in studies at UNC-Chapel Hill to help Kevin acclimate to peanuts, and he’s able to eat one peanut per day.
“But I wish he was just able to eat a peanut butter sandwich,” Stokes said.
She is intrigued by Yu’s research and hopes it will make life safer – and easier – for her son one day.
“It would be amazing to have that level of protection,” Stokes said.
Though the innovative process is promising, it doesn’t completely solve the problem, according to some researchers – and families.
In 2012, Angela Fuller founded Food Allergy Families of the Triad, a support group for families, after her son Holden was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies as an infant. She’s skeptical that the research will make her son’s life easier.
“I don’t think it’s realistic,” she said. “As much as I appreciate this, casual exposure is a huge issue. Some places might use the peanuts, others might not. How do we know if it’s safe?”
Dr. Michelle Hernandez, an associate professor of pediatrics at UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of medicine, worked on a study assessing the effects of the alcalase treatment on allergens with Yu and other researchers. Though the treatment reduces the major allergenic proteins in peanuts, 13 proteins within peanuts as well as other components could cause allergic reactions, Hernandez said.
“Even if you reduce some of the proteins, is that enough?” she said. “We need to make sure this stuff is completely safe.”
More clinical studies testing the peanuts on animals or humans are necessary, Hernandez said. It’s difficult to ensure that the treated peanuts are safe to consume without knowing how every person will react.
“We need to proceed with caution,” she said.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler