LAYTON -- Eating a peanut M&M used to be a life threatening matter for Ethan Horne. Today, not only can the 7-year-old Layton boy have as many as he wants, he can eat anything with peanuts listed in the ingredients.
Ethan has been undergoing a new treatment for his nut allergies at Rocky Mountain Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Layton. Dr. Douglas Jones is one of five physicians in the West, and the only one in Utah offering the treatment so far. To date, Jones said, the only recommendations from the medical community have been to strictly avoid the foods and carry a life-saving emergency medication called injectable epinephrine.
The new treatment consists of giving sufferers tiny amounts of peanuts and gradually increasing the dose. Scientists at the NHS Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge and Stanford University and Packard Children's Hospital have found by doing this, the body's tolerance of peanuts is vastly improved.
The researchers gave 99 children between the ages of 7 and 16 increasing doses of peanut flour mixed with food and gradually increased the dose over time. After six months, 80 percent of the children were able to safely eat peanuts without an allergic reaction.
Jones said the idea behind the therapy is to strengthen the immune system by slowly building up a tolerance to the offending food in small amounts. Scientists call this type of DNA alteration an epigenetic change, from the Latin word epi, which means above. An "epigenetic" change literally means an alteration that is "above" the genes that a person is born with.
"This treatment is done over several months and includes a carefully calculated regimen," Jones said. "It is not something to be taken lightly at all and we have emergency plans in place. We are very strict with our protocol and demand compliance with our patients to provide for the best opportunity for success."
That's exactly what Ethan's treatment regimen was, said his mother, Michelle Horne.
"On his first visit, they took some peanut dust and mixed it in with some Kool-Aid," Horne said. "They waited about 15 minutes and raised the dose a little. They were constantly checking his vitals and keeping a very close eye on him. Over an eight-hour period, Ethan was able to complete all of the doses."
Treatment continued at home and at the doctor's office over a six-month period and Ethan passed all of the tests. Today he's able to eat as many peanuts as he wants.
"It's such a huge relief," Horne said. "He's gotten to do things he never used to do, like eat a hamburger at Five Guys, go to Texas Roadhouse, even eat something as simple as an M&M. Next month we are going to have him treated for cashew allergies and my daughter will be treated for milk and nut allergies."
Jones said there are so many social challenges when someone has a food allergy, including anxiety in parents sending their children to school, church, friend's houses, or birthday parties.
"Children are often bullied because of their food allergy. They are often left out of events because most social events are centered around food in our culture," Jones said. "There can be difficulties in traveling on airplanes or eating out. This treatment takes those challenges and issues away. It is not for everyone, but I am happy to evaluate patients and have a detailed discussion on the risks and benefits of this and also see who may be appropriate candidates for it."
Food allergies are on the rise and have tripled in the United States over the past 15 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children nationwide have some type of food allergy. The most common types of food allergies, Jones said, are milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
"They always have the potential of being life-threatening. I tell people it is like having a half-loaded gun. It does not mean that every exposure will provoke a life-threatening reaction, but the potential is there and it will fire at some point," Jones said. "This is the case with any legitimate food allergy. This is not the case for food intolerances. People often confuse the two."
Jones said people are often misdiagnosed because non-specialists conduct allergy tests that aren't validated. He said those with allergies should see a board-certified physician specifically trained in the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of food allergies to determine if they have a true allergy or an intolerance.
Jones is holding a free seminar on March 19 to discuss the issue. If interested, call 801-775-9800 to RSVP or go to RockyMountainAllergy.com.