August 12, 2014
Researchers Work To Make Cashews And Other Nuts Safe For Those With Allergies
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Millions of adults and children in the US have nut allergies that can range from mild hives to fatal anaphylaxis. A new study led by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reveals that there might be answers other than strictly avoiding nuts.
"The only widely accepted practice for preventing an allergic reaction to nuts is strict avoidance — stay away from the food," USDA Agricultural Research Service researcher Chris Mattison, Ph.D. noted in a statement on Monday. "Clinical trials to test immunotherapy are underway, but we're approaching it from an agricultural perspective rather than medical. Can we change the food, instead of treating the person, so we can eliminate or reduce severe reactions?"
Food allergies are a rising problem, with nearly 200,000 visits per year to the ER for food allergies in the United States. Mattison and his colleagues want to reduce those numbers by modifying the proteins that cause immune responses in people who are allergic to tree nuts and peanuts (which are legumes). Antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) launch the immune response. IgEs recognize and attach themselves to the proteins. Changing the shape of the protein makes it harder for this attachment to happen. In the past, however, research into changing the shape of the proteins has involved harsh chemicals.
Mattison and his team wanted to find a way to change the shape of the protein with compounds "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS), which are Food and Drug Administration approved for use in food and pharmaceuticals.
"We found that the GRAS compound sodium sulfite can effectively disrupt the structure of a couple of the cashew allergens," Mattison says. "And we've done a couple of different tests to show we reduced IgE binding to the proteins when they've been treated with sodium sulfite."
The researchers plan to continue by experimenting on whole nuts and testing the modified proteins on cells in a laboratory setting to see how they respond. They also plan to examine enzymes as candidates to disrupt the allergens because they are known to cut up proteins.
Mattison says that their results could have broader implications than just cashew allergens because the GRAS compound and enzymes affect the allergenic proteins of more than one kind of nut.
"One of our goals is to apply our knowledge from the cashew experiments to other tree nuts and to peanuts," he says.