By WVUA 23 Student Reporter Sam Luther
An Alabama doctor is helping people overcome their peanut and nut allergies with some groundbreaking research.
Dr. Carolyn Comer at the Alabama Asthma and Allergy Center in Birmingham treats people by oral immunotheraphy, a relatively new way of tackling allergies. It works a little bit like a shot: Patients are given minute amounts of a protein in the food they have an allergy for. Each week, patients are exposed to a higher dose, until they’re capable of handling a serving size.
For peanut allergies patients start out taking 2 micrograms (0.002 milligrams) a day, which is basically a tiny speck, Comer said. Each week, patients come in and take an increasing amount under supervision. A full course of treatment for a peanut allergy takes between 21 and 29 weeks, depending on the severity of the allergy.
“It’s all about safety,” Comer said. “We want to make this safe, it needs to be in an office in a dedicated space with staff trained to treat emergency anaphylaxis.”
The goal for peanut allergies, Comer said, is reaching a dose of eight peanuts a day.
“At that amount, they’re basically desensitized and don’t have to worry about accidental ingestion,” she said. “There’s no longer reading labels.”
A lot of people who have severe peanut allergies must avoid any place peanuts may be present in abundance, such as sporting events. Some have allergies so bad they cannot be in the same room with a peanut butter sandwich, and that’s what they’re trying to cure, Comer said.
“This is basically giving them the freedom to live a normal life,” she said.
A normal life is exactly what Mitchell McEver hopes he’ll have by the time he finishes treatment.
“I’ve been allergic to peanuts my whole life, and that’s obviously a difficult way to grow up,” McEver said. “This therapy provides me an opportunity to kind of be released from all the burdens that allergy carries.”
Growing up, McEver said he couldn’t eat at friends’ houses because he was afraid they’d have peanuts or have items cross-contaminated with peanuts. Restaurants could cause problems if food was cross-contaminated, and items without an ingredients list were a definite no-no. But he’s hoping that will change soon.
McEver takes his peanut dose every night after eating dinner, and goes to the clinic once a week for an evaluation and increased dose.
“It’s really important that I stay on that dosing schedule so we can complete this as fast as possible,” he said.
You may not have heard about such therapy yet because it’s still a brand new treatment, Comer said, but it has been studied for about a decade and is proven effective.
There are certainly risks to such treatment, Comer said, but they’re about the same as accidentally being exposed to an allergen during the course of a normal day. That’s why patients are monitored before, during and after treatment at the office and at home.
The Alabama Asthma and Allergy Center has treated 72 patients with about 7,000 doses, Comer said. Of those, only two patients had a reaction severe enough to require medication.
But even after going through treatment, patients are required to keep their desensitization up by ingesting a full dose of their allergen every day. For peanut allergy sufferers, that’s eight peanuts.
Many insurance providers cover oral immunotherapy, so if you think you or a family member could benefit, check with your doctor and provider.