Peanut allergies are a real and growing problem, with allergies to peanuts having more than quadrupled in the U.S. in the 13 years prior to 2010. This trend is worrisome to not only health care professionals, but also to the parents of children who suffer from peanut allergies. According to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, more than 2 percent of children age 18 years and younger have a peanut allergy and it is the leading cause of death related to food allergy in the United States.
I don't know about you, but this problem did not seem to exist when I was growing up; I had only one friend with a nut allergy. Today, I live and breathe it every day with a 13 year-old daughter who suffers from severe nut allergies. Thankfully, from a young age she took control of her allergy and wouldn't ingest food unless the product label clearly stated no nuts. But, I distinctly remember the fear of sending her off to preschool and grammar school with no way to really protect her from an accidental exposure, other than to arm her with an epi-pen. Now is a promising time. Research in this space is at an all time high, thanks to pioneers including Kari Nadeau at Stanford University School of Medicine, Hugh Sampson at Mt. Sinai Hospital, Wesley Burks at University of North Carolina School of Medicine, among others. This problem is so real that families relocate in order to enroll their child in a study at these institutions. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker recently donated $24 million to Stanford University School of Medicine to establish an allergy center.
As both a healthcare investor and someone who has direct experience with nut allergies, this is a space we've been tracking for quiet some time. My daughter was also enrolled in the clinical trials at Stanford and I have seen first hand how these clinical studies have helped children. But, for kids who are dealing with this now and don't have access to academic studies, we need real options for treatment. I am hopeful because there is now real data in terms of solutions. Following is an overview of this promise.
The pediatric community has long recommended parents avoid giving peanut products to young children, however a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week shows that giving peanuts in the first year of life may greatly reduce the chance of developing allergies, and that avoidance may worsen it. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the study, "found that 17.2% of the children who avoided peanuts until age 5 ended up with a peanut allergy compared with 3.2% of those who regularly ate peanuts, said George Du Toit, a consultant in pediatric allergy at King's College London and a co-investigator of the study."
There are also several companies developing promising therapies progressing through clinical trials and on track to becoming FDA-approved. Two companies in particular are focused on desensitizing children to nut allergens through immunotherapy. One company does this by using a delivery technology in the form of a patch that is placed on the skin and delivers allergens. The other is focused on delivering pharmaceutical grade food allergens where patients ingest small and increasing amounts of the food in which they are allergic, such as peanuts, with the goal to achieve desensitization. Both hope to make accidental exposure less dangerous, and both companies have produced promising clinical data in patients. For information regarding ongoing clinical trials you can visit clinicaltrials.gov. If you are a parent with a child who suffers from food allergies, the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) is a non-profit whose mission is to improve the quality of life and the health of individuals with food allergies and is an information-rich resource.
I am eager to see these promising options become widely available and extremely hopeful that before long the research will find causes and cures to make nut and other allergies irrelevant.
Christine Aylward is Managing Director of Foresite Capital, a company investing in health care technology and allergy treatment therapy.