Service dogs, other developments ease peanut allergies

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03:34 PM CDT on Tuesday, June 30, 2009

By KATHLEEN GREEN / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

For years, parents have struggled to keep even trace amounts of peanuts away from their allergic children. They read labels, plan peanut-free parties and generally alter their lives to avoid contact that could turn deadly.

Farley inspects food for nuts at a restaurant for Jett McConnell as grandmother Teresa Lawler waits for the verdict.

Nearly 1.8 million Americans are allergic to peanuts, and 400,000 of those are school-age children, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Only 20 percent of children outgrow it.

It is the most common food allergy. And, of all the food allergies, peanuts and tree nuts are the most likely to cause severe reactions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sufferers can spend years trying to avoid the offending legume. But avoidance isn't foolproof. Reactions can include hives, stomach cramps, vomiting and shortness of breath, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Treatment includes antihistamines and, in rare cases of a severe reaction, epinephrine (an EpiPen) to avert life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

As the health crisis becomes more prevalent, researchers, children willing to endure clinical trials and even a Texas dog trainer are getting involved. Nobody is expecting a cure soon. But these interesting developments are on the horizon:

When a Houston policeman suggested a few years ago that narcotics-sniffing dogs be trained to find peanuts, Sharon Perry, director of training and owner of Southern Star Ranch Boarding Kennel in Florence, realized it wasn't a far-fetched idea.

Since then, Perry has trained a handful of dogs for kids across the nation.

As she scours Dallas-area animal shelters for the perfect prodigies, she looks for pooches that are "wild, crazy and want to play ball 'til hell freezes over, maybe a little longer," she says. She then takes them back to her kennel just south of Killeen for six months of intense instruction.

The first dog went to a Houston family a few years ago. Perry recalls how the mother was on board but her husband was doubtful. So Perry quickly demonstrated how the dog knew the difference between a McDonald's chicken nugget and one cooked in peanut oil from Chick-Fil-A.

Karen Gensel of Tampa, Fla., has seen such remarkable work in action. Family dog Remy can detect minute traces of nuts, which means son Billy's life has changed immeasurably since the black lab joined them a year ago.

For example, hotel rooms, restaurants and airplanes used to be strictly off limits. Now vacations are worry-free with Remy, who is allowed access as a medical companion dog.

"They're small things to the average individual, but to my son and me, they're exciting adventures we never thought he would be able to enjoy," she says.

Perry says a steady interest in these dogs is sometimes met with disappointment. "What kills them is the price," $9,995, she says. "I'd love to do it for less but that means I'm going in the hole."

So she and Gensel are discussing how to create a nonprofit group to help ease the financial blow for families.

Building immunity

Researchers are making inroads, according to a study released in March. Dr. Wesley Burks, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center, along with his colleagues at Arkansas Children's Hospital, slowly exposed allergic children to peanuts. His ongoing study involves 100 children and has a waiting list of 100 additional families. The treatment's first goal is to desensitize patients to peanuts.

"For example, most of the kids react to less than one-hundredth of a peanut going in to this study," he says. "And at the end of about a year, the ones on active treatment can tolerate about 15 peanuts. So it raises their threshold. If they take a bite of cookie or something that has peanut in it, they're not likely to have a reaction while they're on treatment."

The second goal is to make the allergy go away altogether.

"More work needs to be done to see if it will have long-term benefit, but early results look promising," says Anne Muņoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, which paid for the pilot study. "For patients and their families, the results of this study serve as a beacon of hope that one day soon, they won't have to worry about trace amounts of peanut causing a reaction."

Practical changes may be reality in less than five years, Burk says, although other experts are less optimistic.

In other research being done at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, a botanical drug (Food Allergy Herbal Formula, FAHF-2) is showing potential. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology .

Clinical work in Dallas

Dr. Rebecca Gruchalla, chief of allergy and immunology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says she is optimistic about such strides, including work being done by the Consortium of Food Allergy headed up by Dr. Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe institute.

"I'm hoping that in the not-distant future, we will be able to translate some of the research being done ... into clinical practice," says Gruchalla. Plans are in place to bring in pediatric food-allergy specialist Drew Bird from Duke University this summer to begin his own clinical food-allergy program at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.

"There is a tremendous amount of work being done and much progress has been made," she says. "I think there is going to be wonderful treatment for children and adults with food allergies in the very near future. We're just not quite there yet."

Kathleen Green is a Plano freelance writer.


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