A Novel Approach to Treating Food Allergies

For most 8-year-olds, life is pretty carefree. Whether eating lunch in the school cafeteria or going to an amusement park with friends, most kids don’t think twice about the associated risks. But for those with a severe food allergy, it’s a different story.

A Novel Approach to Treating Food Allergies click to enlarge Madigan Gross
A Novel Approach to Treating Food Allergies click to enlarge Madigan leads an active life following treatment.

Madigan Gross, an 8-year-old from North Carolina, had a hard time gaining weight as a baby. When Madigan was a year old, her mother, Carey, gave her peanut butter to help her put on weight.  Like most 1-year-olds, Madigan ended up with much of the peanut butter on her face.

“Shortly after I gave her peanut butter, I gave Madigan a bath, and within minutes, I noticed that her eyes, lips and face were swollen,” Carey said.

Carey took her daughter to her pediatrician, and Madigan tested positive for allergy to several foods, particularly peanuts.

According to a Centers for Disease Control study, the number of people in the U.S. with food allergy more than tripled from 1997 to 2008, and food allergy is now estimated to affect up to 15 million Americans. Food allergy can cause severe, potentially fatal allergic reactions, and many of these allergic reactions are not outgrown. Worse yet, no treatments are available other than trying to avoid the food.

“As doctors, we are so focused on anaphylaxis that there are a lot of things that we probably don’t think of when we consider food allergies,” said Dr. Edwin Kim, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine. “For instance, many allergic kids never go to birthday parties, sleepovers or other activities with other kids for fear that they will be exposed to peanuts. This can have a profound effect on the social well-being and quality of life of these kids.”

Dr. Kim is the director of the UNC Food Allergy Initiative research group. He primarily focuses on the development of treatment for life-threatening food allergies and works with many patients at UNC Children’s. Dr. Kim met Madigan during a clinical trial he was leading to use immunotherapy to treat food allergy, which is the process of giving small, increasing amounts of what the person is allergic to in order to retrain the immune system. In Madigan’s case, that was peanuts.

Along with his team, Dr. Kim focuses on several forms of immunotherapy, including food that is ingested (oral), food in liquid form held under the tongue (sublingual) and food in a medicine patch (epicutaneous).

When she was 18 months old, Madigan started Kim’s trial of sublingual immunotherapy by taking tiny drops of liquid peanut under her tongue. She continued the process every day for five years. Eventually, she underwent a food challenge without having any symptoms, and doctors gave her the green light to start eating real peanuts. She began with 20, and then two weeks later ate 40. Now, any chance they get, her mom encourages Madigan to incorporate peanuts into her diet to maintain her immunity.

Since Madigan received the treatment, Carey said she has one memory that she will never forget. At a Durham Bulls game earlier this year, Carey looked over and saw that Madigan was eating a bag of ballpark peanuts with her dad and her brother, just like a normal kid.

“We feel really grateful that we live in an area where we had access to the study,” Gross said. “Dr. Kim has been absolutely amazing throughout the entire process. The fact that a child can look forward to going to a doctor’s office speaks volumes about his personal, empathetic approach. He genuinely cares about his patients, and Madigan’s life is better for it.”

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