Food allergies affect an estimated 15 million Americans, and that figure may be rising; a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 found an increase in food allergies among children of approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. Eight foods account for about 90% of all reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish, and even trace amounts of allergens can cause life-threatening reactions. There are experimental treatments but still no cure for food allergies, sufferers are told to ensure they strictly avoid allergens, and early recognition and management of allergic reactions are important measures to prevent serious health consequences.
CRISPR has been publicized as a technology capable of generating an allergy-free peanut – imagine, people will be able to sample the delights of peanut butter, and neurotically checking food labels for “may contains traces of” will be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to expect a hypoallergenic peanut to be on the market within the near future. Currently we don’t know every single allergenic gene in the ubiquitous nut, how expression of supposedly non-allergic genes may change as a result of disrupting the genes around them, or what might be left if we remove multiple genes which could be significant sources of protein, nutritional value and flavour. Removing allergenic parts of the genome could actually change the way we process the peanut itself; imagine a hypoallergenic nut that could not blend to the texture of peanut butter – smooth or crunchy.
Instead of getting ahead of ourselves with which parts of the genome CRISPR/Cas9 can “edit out,” a new initiative named the Food Allergy Research Consortium and launched by the Broad Institute, aims to get to grips with the basic science underlying food allergy. Broad Institute said in a statement,
With the dramatic advances in genomic technologies, immunology, and microbiome research in the past decade, scientists are now in a unique position to explore the biological mechanisms behind food allergies.
Researchers will use single-cell genomic analysis and CRISPR genome-editing techniques to take a closer look at individual genes in terms of the roles they each play in allergy development and response.
Synthego’s very own Trevor Longbottom has a dairy food allergy, so research into food allergies and pretty much anything that will allow him to eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup is high up on his agenda. We talked to him about his hopes for the new research initiative and he explained that using CRISPR to create so-called anti-allergenic food types isn’t really of interest, what he’d really like is a “one-time process, whether that’s a shot or something else, … that could completely cure a specific allergy.” In the past Trevor took part in a clinical trial that hoped to slowly desensitize patients over time.
It worked well on some patients but it didn’t work particularly effectively in the higher doses for Trevor and his allergy is just as sensitive as it ever has been. He hopes that something will come to fruition in the coming years, and in the mean time will continue to look forward to his first Reese’s peanut butter cup.
It’s clear that hopes for the Food Allergy Research Consortium are high among both patients, doctors and researchers alike – we’ll certainly be eagerly awaiting research outputs!
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