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An end to food allergies would be nothing to sneeze at

Now if we could just do something about pollen.

By Cassidy Ward
A concept photograph of a no entry or prohibited sign engraved into a jar of peanut butter.

Nuts make for a good food source for many animals (and a good target for an animal-based heist in The Nut Job) as well as humans. Their high protein content and ability to remain shelf stable for extended periods make them a go-to snack for people and animals all over the world. That is, of course, unless you’re allergic.

Food allergies are relatively common and extend beyond the beloved nut. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, roughly 4% to 6% of children and 4% of adults are allergic to at least one common food, including eggs, dairy, fish, wheat, soy, and more. For many, food allergies are a mild or moderate annoyance which makes it difficult or uncomfortable to enjoy certain foods. For others, exposure to certain foods can be life threatening. In severe cases, a food allergy can cause anaphylaxis, resulting in impaired breathing and a dangerous drop in blood pressure. Symptoms can appear within minutes of exposure and require immediate medical attention.

A shot of epinephrine can be a life-saving measure after a person has been unwittingly exposed to an allergen, but it would be a whole lot better if we were able to find the root of the problem and address it, correcting for the allergic response before it starts.

Previous research has identified butyrate, a bacterial compound made in the gut, as a potential moderator of allergic reactions to food, and it’s the target of new research presented at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. In healthy microbiomes, butyrate is produced naturally and helps to maintain the lining of the gut. If your microbiome is out of balance, however, bits of food can sneak out of the gut, causing a potentially fatal allergic reaction.

Armed with that knowledge, scientists have created ways to supplement butyrate in the microbiome, in the hope of closing the gaps in your body’s natural defenses. The results have been promising but not without their challenges. Primary among these is that butyrate is disgusting. Researchers described it as smelling like a combination of dog poop and rancid butter. That makes it difficult to test in animal models and challenging to administer to people. The ability to enjoy a peanut butter sandwich for your midnight snack might reasonably be outweighed by the necessity of consuming something that smells and tastes like an unwashed kennel or a movie theater bathroom.

The trick is to get butyrate into the body without needing to deal with the rancid experience of consuming it. In short, it needs a better delivery system and now it has one. Scientists crafted a new way of packaging butyrate by combining butanoyloxyethyl methacrylamide — which contains butyrate as a side chain — and methacrylic acid or hydroxypropyl methacrylamide. The end result is small self-assembling packets which contain the butyrate in the center, trapping its noxious characteristics inside their cores.

They tested the packets, known as polymeric micelles, on mice who had food allergies or damaged gut linings and it worked wonders. Once inside the body, the digestive system breaks down the packets and releases the butyrate into the lower gut. In their experiments, scientists confirmed that healthy bacteria populations increased, and damaged areas of the gut lining were restored.

After treatment, mice who were exposed to peanuts did not experience an anaphylactic reaction, providing compelling evidence that supplementing butyrate is effective at treating the root cause of food allergies. Of course, more research is needed, and future work will involve testing the therapy on other animals and eventually human trials.

Crucially, because butyrate supplementation treats the microbiome and the overall health of the gut, it isn’t specific to any one allergen. Instead, it has the potential to close the door on a wide array of allergens. It might also be useful in more local reactions if injected into a target site in the body, such as in patients who have undergone an organ transplant or who have a localized autoimmune disease.

That’s good news not just for people with life-threatening conditions but even for people who just want a special treat. Everyone should be able to enjoy a peanut butter cup every now and again.