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Scientists Getting Closer to Understanding Food Allergies

Up to 6 percent of U.S children suffer from food allergies. (
Up to 6 percent of U.S children suffer from food allergies. (
April 16, 2018

EVANSTON, Ill. — Scientists may have taken an important step toward limiting instances of food allergies in the future.

A new study from Northwestern Medicine linked infant and childhood food allergies to a mix of environmental and genetic factors. Professor Joan Cook-Mills headed up the research at Northwestern University and said they found that allergies were triggered by a combination of genetics that alter skin absorbency, the use of baby wipes that left soap on the skin, exposure to allergens in dust and skin exposure to food - even by something as simple as a sibling who has eaten peanut butter kissing a baby.

"What's unique is that this combination of household exposures induces food allergies early in life,” Cook-Mills said. “And if you leave out any of the components of this combination, it doesn't induce food allergy."

Cook-Mills said phase two of the study will be to figure out why food allergies have been on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they affect an estimated 4-6 percent of children in the United States. Recent data also show hospitalizations with diagnoses related to food allergies have increased among children.

Cook-Mills made the discovery in the lab by exposing peanuts to neonatal mice. The peanut alone had no effect. But in cases in which there was a combination of peanut exposure, exposure to allergens in dust and genetic mutations that could have been caused by something as simple as leaving soap on the skin, a food allergy developed.

She said what this means is that parents can reduce the risk factors for their child by doing simple things like washing their hands before handling a baby and limiting the use of infant wipes.

"These are modifiable environmental factors, but there may be also a better understanding of how food allergies develop,” Cook-Mills said; “and therefore we may be able to discover new ways to control this development, or even responses."

The study was supported by National Institutes of Health grants, and is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL