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ARS Scientists May Bring Relief to Peanut Allergy Sufferers

By Erin Kendrick-Peabody
July 10, 2003

Americans reach for peanuts at baseball games, picnics and in between meals. Savory and satisfying, peanuts pack a nutritional punch in the form of protein, fiber, vitamin E, niacin and folic acid. But not everyone can enjoy the popular legumes, for peanuts induce an allergic reaction in 1.5 million Americans.

Now Agricultural Research Service scientists are bringing hope to peanut-sensitive consumers in the form of a hypoallergenic peanut. Soheila J. Maleki and her colleagues at the agency's Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, La., have found a peanut variety lacking one of the major peanut allergens. If their search turns up another allergen-free variety, researchers can cross-breed them to produce a safer nut.

Maleki's peanut allergy work is being presented today at a news conference, by phone, hosted by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

To find a friendlier nut, scientists needed a diverse supply of peanut plants to screen. So, SRRC researchers obtained 300 peanut varieties from a collection at North Carolina State University. Maleki and her colleagues then developed antibodies against the three main peanut allergens to determine if any of the varieties were missing the allergy-causing components. Using the ARS antibodies, they found what they had hoped for: a peanut variety lacking a key allergen.

Varieties showing lower levels of allergens can be used in traditional cross-breeding experiments to produce a hypoallergenic peanut plant. Along with new peanut processing methods and vaccine development in the works, a cultivar with reduced allergens could be the answer peanut allergy sufferers have long been awaiting.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.