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Patching the Peanut Problem: Skin Study Seeks Solution

For Francis Murphy, 9 – as well as many other peanut allergy sufferers – a bite or two of a peanut-containing or peanut-contaminated food could lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction characterized by an inability to breathe normally, swelling and in some cases a dangerously low blood pressure.

Parents of children with peanut allergies must be vigilant about avoiding exposure and training teachers, coaches, playmates’ parents and others the right way to respond to an attack – with an EpiPen (epinephrine) injection and a visit to the emergency room. And as children get older, it becomes more and more difficult to constantly monitor their safety.

As the prevalence of food allergies increases among children, research is needed for therapies to control – or even cure – these potentially deadly reactions. One trial, a peanut allergy patch study, is currently underway at Children’s Health and at several other medical centers around the world. And the Murphy family wanted to be a part of it.

“We originally heard that Dr. [Drew] Bird was going to be doing an oral immunotherapy study for peanut allergies and were interested,” says Stephanie Murphy, mom to Francis and two other children – Mimi, who has no allergies, and James, who is allergic to eggs, chicken and raspberries. “However, it was not going to work for us, given our distance from the clinic and the time Francis would have to be away from school.”

Knowing the Murphys were interested, research coordinator Amy Arneson, mentioned a new study using patches. The family was eager for any opportunity to lessen a potential reaction to peanut, so they signed Francis up.

“He loves that he's a part of science, helping doctors learn more about peanut allergies,” says Murphy.

Here’s what the peanut patch study entails:

  • At the beginning of the trial, and at the one-year mark, Francis has participated in food challenges – eating controlled amounts of peanut to see how much his body can tolerate before a reaction.
  • Each day, Francis’ parents apply a peanut-containing patch, about the size of a quarter, to his back.
  • The peanut protein is absorbed through Francis’ skin. The idea is that, over time, his body will start to recognize the peanut protein and not attack it as a threat.
  • At his one-year check-in, the Murphys were told that Francis’ patch was actually a placebo; therefore, there has been no change in the amount of peanut he can eat.
  • Since then, Francis has been given the real peanut patch and the Murphys are scheduling his food challenges, hopeful that they will see a change this year.

Results from the study so far have been mixed, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

But families like the Murphys are optimistic and recognize the need for further research of this kind.

“Everyone knows that food allergies have become more prevalent,” says Murphy. “There are theories as to why, but until doctors and scientists can figure that out, it is urgent that they research treatments for all of these adults and children.”

Saving someone from an allergic reaction depends on many things – having the medication available, quickly recognizing the reaction, knowing how to administer the EpiPen and appropriate after-care.

“Research into treating serious food allergies, like Francis' peanut allergy, is critical because not all children have these things available to them in their moment of need,” says Murphy. “They have a level of risk in their lives, one that could be greatly reduced and someday, hopefully, eliminated.”