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Soheila J. Maleki
Soheila J. Maleki

USDA Scientist Named Finalist for Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Groundbreaking Food Allergy Work

May 8, 2018

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2018Soheila Maleki, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist, today was named a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in recognition of her 20-plus years of pioneering research that has improved the quality of life for millions of Americans who suffer from food allergies.

The awards, also known as the “Sammies,” are given each year to federal employees who have distinguished themselves by making our country safer, healthier and stronger. Maleki, a chemist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in New Orleans, is being recognized for research - particularly in the areas of peanuts and tree nuts - which has significantly impacted scientific knowledge, commercial processing and regulation in the United States and worldwide.

“Dr. Maleki’s work exemplifies her dedication, creativity, energy and scientific expertise in developing innovative research strategies to help people afflicted with food allergies,” said ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young. “Her unique holistic approach—incorporating allergenicity as a consideration in peanut breeding and food processing—has had a tremendous impact on advances in detection, diagnosis and treatment of food allergies.”

Four out of every 100 children in the United States have a food allergy—the most common being peanuts. For those most sensitive, ingesting only a trace amount can cause a fatal reaction.

Maleki’s groundbreaking research changed how people are tested for peanut allergies today and resolved a controversial issue by demonstrating that food processing changes the allergenic potential of foods. For example, extracts used to diagnose allergies come from raw peanuts while most people eat cooked peanuts—roasted or boiled. Maleki and her colleagues showed that raw peanut proteins undergo specific molecular changes during roasting, altering allergens and thus increasing their allergenicity. In addition, she showed that cooking peanuts at high heat and pressure could reduce allergenicity from the usual roasting or boiling methods by making the allergens insoluble and thus no longer detectable.

Other research co-authored by Maleki showed that early introduction of peanut can prevent development of peanut allergy in 80 percent of at-risk infants. Because of this body of work, the American Medical Association made changes in the management and diagnosis of food allergies. In addition, U.S. pediatricians’ practice parameters and guidelines changed to recommended early introduction of peanut to infants. Maleki was appointed to a committee to amend the U.S. Guidelines for Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy.

Maleki has worked with a company that is developing a drug for peanut allergies and other nut allergies and has contributed to the development of detection kits for food companies to assess cross contamination of allergens on product lines. She has published more than 100 research papers and collaborated with numerous scientists worldwide.

Her numerous awards and recognition from industry, research organizations and ARS include the American Peanut Research and Education Award, the European Association of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Best Presentation Award and ARS’s Distinguished Senior Research Scientist of the Year for 2017.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief in-house scientific research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 worth of economic impact.