Researchers trick immune system into turning off peanut allergy


October 25, 2011

Using an approach already used to treat autoimmune diseases, researchers have manged to turn off the allergic response to peanuts in mice (Image: Martin L via Flickr)

Using an approach already used to treat autoimmune diseases, researchers have manged to turn off the allergic response to peanuts in mice (Image: Martin L via Flickr)

A few years ago I was rushed to hospital suffering anaphylaxis after eating a satay in peanut sauce. Although I'd previously experienced an itchy throat from eating nuts, I didn't realize at the time that this was an allergic reaction that could actually kill me. Luckily, friends got me to the hospital where I was shot full of adrenalin and everything was fine but, unfortunately, this is not always the result for many allergy sufferers. Now researchers have managed to rapidly turn off the allergic response to peanuts in mice by tricking the immune system into thinking the nut proteins aren't a threat.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there are between 15,000 and 30,000 episodes of food-induced anaphylaxis and 100 to 200 related deaths in the U.S. alone every year. When an allergic person eats a peanut, the proteins are absorbed through the intestine and are mistakenly identified by the body's immune system as a threat. This can trigger a life-threatening, full-body immune response that includes constriction of the airways, low blood pressure and/or shock and can lead to loss of consciousness and death.

While some positive results have been seen in exposing peanut allergy sufferers to incrementally larger doses of peanuts to desensitize them to the allergy-causing protein, most people simply have to avoid the food in question. This is actually easier said than done. Even after I began religiously checking food labels and enquiring about exactly what was in a particular dish on a menu when eating out I still wasn't able to avoid accidentally eating peanuts on two occasions in the years since becoming aware of my allergy.

The approach by researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine could solve all these problems and actually let people with food allergies - not only to peanuts - enjoy the food they've so long been wary about. It involves attaching peanut proteins onto blood cells called leukocytes and reintroducing them into the body.

The researchers tested the approach using a mouse model that mimics a life-threatening peanut allergy. After two treatments, the mice were fed a peanut extract and didn't have an allergic reaction because their immune system now recognized the protein as safe.

"Their immune system saw the peanut protein as perfectly normal because it was already presented on the white blood cells," said Paul Bryce, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of allergy-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Without the treatment, these animals would have gone into anaphylactic shock."

Bryce believes that it should be possible to attach more than one protein to the surface of the blood cells to allow multiple food allergies to be targeted at the one time. Although the same approach has been used in treating autoimmune diseases, it is the first time this method for creating tolerance in the immune system has been used in allergic diseases. As an added benefit, the approach also increases the number of regulatory T cells, which are immune cells important for recognizing the peanut proteins as normal, resulting in a more normal, balanced immune system.

"T cells come in different 'flavors'," said Bryce. "This method turns off the dangerous Th2 T cell that causes the allergy and expands the good, calming regulatory T cells. We are supposed to be able to eat peanuts. We've restored this tolerance to the immune system."

In the second part of their study, the researchers tested the same approach with another common food allergy - egg protein - which provokes an immune response similar to an asthma attack in the lungs. Again, after the proteins were attached to white blood cells and infused back into the mice, they had no adverse effects after inhaling the asthma-provoking egg protein.

"This is an exciting new way in which we can regulate specific allergic diseases and may eventually be used in a clinical setting for patients," said Miller, the Judy Gugenheim Research Professor at Feinberg.

The Northwestern University team's research appears in a paper published in the Journal of Immunology.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

What exactly is the paper titled / what page number /edition is it on?

Ed - thanks, the direct link to the paper has now been added.

Robert Springer

Does the effect last ? Or do allergic patients need repeat treatment with allergen-covered leucocytes ?

Bart Viaene

This research is missing the point. You cannot do that for every substance, it is a bad approach.

I accidentally discovered that orally administered antifungal medication (itraconazole) is able to suppress completely all my once serious allergy symptoms. I contacted the NIH (NIAID) with this, and though they replied, they failed to grasp the importance (also in human lives) of this serendipitous knowledge.

Not only that, fungal medication has to be taken for a long time, since fungi need long treatments. The medication will start to work after some 20 days, it seems this is the time required to switch fungi off. When anti fungal medication is suspemded after several months, symptoms of allergy will be much lower or will be cured, and they will stay so. This furhter confirms fungi as the possible cause of all allergies. When having a health problem, it should be regular procedure to tes if it is caused by a virus, a bacteria or fungi, but it seems top researchers are failing to check this, as a starting point.

If somebody with a lab or research potential is reading this, please try it, it is too important to the lives of so many to just let it be forgotten (again). The medicines are already there it is simpler than usual to test this.

All the best to you all


JayDay, I have many decades of experience with various allergies and strategies. What you most likely experienced is the cumulative inflammation effect. When you are stressed by one or more significant allergic reactions, it lowers your tolerance for others. Your fungal immune reactions could have made you more sensitive to your other more minor allergies. This is a response that I have much experience with.

I have also had experience with an allergy treatment that placed a small dose of the allergin under the tongue -- which put it directly into the blood stream. The dose was individually tailored to turn off the reaction. It was a smaller dose than turned it on. It worked along the lines of when an infection was being cleared by the immune system, at a certain low level, the immune system turns off. This is what happens when the fever breaks and you suddenly feel well in an instant.

What the researchers have done here though is fantastic for its potential. Just think about all the poison ivy sufferers who get a systemic reaction. Many people could benefit from this once it is fully developed for human use.


see3d, I don't think what you suggest is the case. When I stumbled upon this, I was avoiding all known allergens, I was free from allergy symptoms and it was in the winter, so there were no pollens, which I was very allergic to. Since the fungal treatment went on for several months well into the spring, I realized with big surprise that spring I was not suffering hay fever anymore, and that was very evident to me as my symptoms were very evident every spring. I became free of any allergy symptoms even if I walked into the park in the middle of the spring. That would have been completely impossible before the antifungal treatment.

Curiously enough, I reproduced the same effect while on antibiotics. But contrary to antifungals, allergies would be worst than at the start of the treatment. My guess is that antibiotics didn't kill fungi but freed them of competitors, and fungi used this antibiotic treatment time to spread without competition. I think this is also why allergies can be kickstarted after an intense and long tratment with antibiotics.

I think what happens is that some fungal pathogen is releasing some specific glycoproteins into the bloodstream to tweak the immune system to their benefit. Glycoproteins are used by the immune system as messengers. Fungi are altering the communication within the immune system, so that they keep it busy. This way the fungi can spread more easily: the immune system will be responding weakly to fungi for having to deal with too many things at a time. If somebody is taking antifungal medication, that will freeze fungal activity after a number of days, about 20. If this frozen state is kept long enough, the immune system will eventually be able to clear the fungi and allergies will be cured. If the treatment is not long enugh, allergies will improve.

Your approach may also work, but some people are allergic to dozens or hundreds of substances. Some people don't even know all the substances they are allergic to. You'll still have to prescribe a treatment for each substance. IMO it makes little sense all that trouble if you can end it all quickly and easily by taking a single antifungal agent. The simplest solutions are often the best, they'rre more likely to be addressing the root of the problem, and that's just what I think is happening with antifungals in this case.


JayDay, The treatment see3D decsribed, sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is commonly called allergy drops. They are a form of desensitization and in that they are similar to the techinique in the article. There are no commercially available sublingual treatments for food allergies yet but there are allergy drops for most airborne allergies.

Allergy drops have been successfully used in Europe for decades and are endorsed by the World Health Organization. They are being adopted rapidly in the US.

Allergy Specific

JayDay, Perhaps you did not realize that Winter has some of the worst pollen levels. Windborne pollens from trees are spread in Winter. I know.

I underwent anti-fungal treatments to no effect before I started SLIT treatments for aerosol and food allergies 25 years ago from the pioneers in the field. I got a lot of relief, but it was an ongoing process of adjusting doses every season.

The thing that finally got rid of most of my allergies was cleaning up my diet to get rid of grains and other high GI carbs and striving for low inflammation through balancing proteins, fats, and low GI carbs, along with EPA/DHA and other supplements. That cleared up almost all my many allergies. That evens out blood sugar, which to your point, also makes a less favorable environment for fungus to grow long term.

These things are as multi-faceted as individual immune systems.


Allergy Specific, SLIT is a possibility, but it seems to me far too cumbersome. The number of possible allergens is very high, in the hundreds or thousands of substances. Is like having no money and having to \"desensitize\" every shop in town about that fact, so that they will still sell you things despite your being broke. We don\'t even know the number of shops in town, and it could be you really need something from a shop you didn\'t know that existed or you were not able to desensitize.

Wouldn\'t it be better just having an adequate income, a solution that fits all shops once and for all?


see3d, my allergies were serious enough as to realize for sure if there were airborne pollens or not. The difference was dramatic enough to say that it wouldn\'t go unnoticed.

Maybe your antifungal treatments were too short, non-systemic, or low dose? Even topical treatments improved my allergies, in fact I realized about this after a topical treatment, then a friend doctor suggested me to try a systemic treatment. My experience is that you\'ll need to take antifungals for at least 20 days to put fungi to sleep. Then treatment should go on for three to six months.

It is interesting what you say about nutrition, blood sugar levels could definitely be a hint.

Sure there is an individual aspect to this, but if I\'m right, antifungals should work just about the same way for everybody with allergies, just like antibiotics work approximately fine for everybody in other conditions. The key here would be a long enough systemic treatment with the right dose.


Has anyone considered how this approach may help gluten tolerance in children? We have friends who\'s daughter has almost died on several occasions because of gluten in the food she was served. Could the same technique help her?

Dale Whitworth

Dale, Certainly the implications of this approach can be relevant to many other conditions. I myself can name a few, other are to be explored.

So far there may be reasons to think gluten intolerance may follow a similar path. In my case I was eating normally until I developed gluten intolerance too, in parallel with the worsening of allergies. Gluten intolerance could be in fact a gluten allergy. The same goes for some other food intolerances. It has improved with antifungals.

New quality research is pointing to evidence that we are colonized by far more microbial species than we knew so far. The consequences of that remain unknown in most cases. Until now, science has been able to master viral and microbial infections, which are normally acute. IMO, there is a whole new avenue to solve so far incurable diseases if we just consider the possibility that they might be caused, among other possibilities, by long term fungal infections, watch: Amy Proal on Viral and Bacterial Metagenome

Other conditions that might respond to this approach: - Irritable bowel, which in my case has followed a similar path to allergies: worsening with antibiotics, improving with antifungals. It shares the characteristic of an acute reaction being triggered only by some substances, much like allergies. - Crohn\'s is possibly only a more serious stage of irritable bowel, see the videos by John Hermon Taylor on a mycobaterium (mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis) as the proven agent causing both irritable bowel and Crohn\'s Trailer Profesor John Hermon Taylor CROHN vs M.A.P. Part 1-CROHN M.A.P. by John Hermon Taylor Some may say this is a bacterium, not a fungus, but irritable bowel does respond to antifungal medication. - Fibromyalgia is also a good candidate, I developed muscular pains in a shoulder after a long treatment with antibiotics that only got cured after several months of antifungals - Arthrosis might be worth exploring. It could be related to collagen metabolism being stopped by fungi. Collagen is a very important component in cartilage. - Scoliosis and osteoporosis might be caused by a fungal infection of some areas in bones, interfering with calcium metabolism and weakening them during growth or old age. After a long antobiotic treatment an old pain spot in my column got \'awakened\', and several months of antifungals brought things back to normal, stopping the pain. - Long term problems in ears and eyes, specially if they were normal once and the problem is slowly progressing for many months or years. Tinnitus, macular degeneration or the need for reading glasses in old age may be an example. - Some slow progressing neurological problems might be explored. Memory loss, concentration problems, both got improved by antifungals in my case. - Chronic fatigue, antifungals cured this to me. It seems fungi are able to sequester some related biological path.

The list could go on perhaps. It seems this is a new avenue for a large number of diseases. The same happened when antibiotics were used for the first time, they were able to cure a whole set of conditions.

The right dosage determination should take into accout that it will be a long treatment. A relatively low dose for a long time might work better than a high dose that has to be stopped due to intolerance by the patient or toxicity. Liver and kidney functions should be monitored when possible. An orientation dose for a person weighing about 180 pounds (81kg) could be 1 itraconazole (100mg) pill a day for three to six months or even longer, depending on the evolution. A good rule could be the treatment should go on for the same time it took for that treatment until the person became free of symptoms.

The reader has to evaluate this information and decide on it independently and at his/her own risk, no responsabilities will be accepted for these advices.

The use of natural products is not advised here, some are advertised as antifungals, but may have an antibiotic effect, causing the fungi to spread, what could become a very seriuos problem. Other systemic antifungals may also work. When possible, fungal conditions may be treated topically too.


@JayDay, I am very allergic to spring tree pollens and late summer weeds such as ragweed. Late this summer, unlike many of my friends, I mysteriously experienced no allergic symptoms although pollen levels were very high this year. Coincidentally, I was taking a prescription antifungal to cure some ointment-resistant ringworm on my legs. Otherwise I am in very good health and very active. However, since antifungal drugs can also be toxic to the liver, I\'m not sure if they are a good candidate for treatment of allergies.


Richard, thanks for sharing your experience, it confirms that this approach might work for everyone else with allergies. Possibly the same for other conditions listed above.

I have taken several tratments of itraconazole, six months long and more, one 100mg pill every day, and I had no liver problems.

Why several treatments? Because I was experiencing with supposed antifungals like castor oil or pau d\'arco. Both natural remedies caused my fungi to spread. Vitamin D was also the wrong treatment with the same effect. One has to be very careful, all these treatments seemed to work while on them, but the result was very negative when suspended, just like it happens with antibiotics for fungi. The difference when taking antifungals is that symptoms will be gone when suspending the medication. In some cases the problem may be cured, in some others the fungi will remain dormant (remission). If the dormant state can be sustained for a long period (even years), the problem will eventually disappear. If something wrong is done (pollution, wrong treatments, even stress or inadequate nutrition, etc), they might come \'back to life\' just like at the beginning.

I have experienced that city air pollution is a very important factor helping develop these fungal problems, all symptoms disappear when breathing completely clean air. The reason I can imagine for this is that NOx gases dissolove in blood and these fungi are able to use them from blood as fertilizers. Air humidity adds to pollution, it favors fungi on the skin, and those are enough as to cause serious general problems. The air spewed by computers is also a factor, it seems it is rich in several toxic chemicals that help fungi to spread and grow. Chemical products like bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants (also in matresses and furniture), plastifiers, heavy metals, etc. One should avoid foam, rubber or plastic covered matresses. Coil matresses are best, but even those contain flame retardants. The solution I found was placing two thick cotton bed covers between the matress and the sheets.

I forgot to mention that asthma and blood circulation conditions, including chest pain can respond to this approach. The worng tratments provoked me chest pains that would last for months, and only antifungals brought things back to normal.


The reader has to evaluate this information and decide on it independently and at his/her own risk, no responsabilities will be accepted for these advices.

The use of natural products is not advised here, some are advertised as antifungals, but may have an antibiotic effect, causing the fungi to spread, what could become a very serious problem. Other systemic antifungals may also work. When possible, fungal conditions may be treated topically too.

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