The Food Allergy Specific ImmunoTherapy (FAST) project will use modified variants of proteins that cause an allergic response, but the variants will be hypoallergenic and therefore safer. The proteins will be purified making them more effective and making it easier to control the dose, say the researchers.
"We are hoping for a cure that will allow people to eat fish or fruit again,” said Dr Ronald van Ree from the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam. “But a significant reduction of sensitivity would already be a great step forwards.
“The risk of unintentional exposure due to cross-contamination of foods… will decrease. This will take away lot of the anxiety that has a negative impact on the quality of life of food allergy sufferers."
An estimated four per cent of adults and eight per cent of children in the 380m EU population suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.
This has been mirrored by a boom in the free-from food market that has been enjoying sales growth of over 300 per cent in the UK since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel.
The most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives are cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
Succeeding where others failed
Previous attempts to treat food allergies focused on exposure to an allergen extract, but this failed because it could cause anaphylaxis as a side effect. The FAST project will look at the production of modified hypo-allergenic versions of allergic proteins as potential treatments.
The project, which has funding for seven years, will include pre-clinical studies for the first half of the time, and this will be followed by phase I and II clinical trials.
The researchers are focussing on two food groups - fish and fruit (apple, pears, peach, cherry) because the allergens are known. "For fish and these fruit the allergy is relatively simple, and there is only really one protein that causes the disease," Dr van Ree told this website.
The principle could be applied to all food allergies, he said, but in each case specific knowledge of each allergen is needed. In allergies such as peanut several allergens are at play, which complicates the approach. "But in principle, there is no difference for applying the approach to other foods," he said.
Here today, gone tomorrow
Dr. van Ree said that, assuming the phase II trials are successful, these treatments could be on the market within 10 years. This echoes statements he made at the BA Festival of Science in England in 2006.
Over-reporting of allergies?
A recent study from Germany called into question the statistics behind food allergies, saying that half of the reported food allergies amongst adults are not food allergies at all.
According to a paper published by Cornelia Seitz from her co-workers from Wurzburg University in the journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, out of the 419 people with suspected food allergies tested in their study, less than 50 per cent actually had a IgE-mediated food allergy.
The findings show the importance of accurate diagnosis of food allergies, since a non-existent food allergy can lead to needless dietary restrictions.