Controversial treatment helping food allergy sufferers

Imagine not being able to enjoy holidays, a baseball game, or baked goods at the office because they could kill you.

That's what people with food allergies deal with.

There's a controversial treatment changing lives and saving lives of allergy sufferers.

People with peanut allergies don't just have to stay away from peanuts, but they have to make sure the foods they eat aren't made with peanuts or in a facility where there are peanuts. And the same thing goes for people with other food allergies like eggs and milk.

But a controversial therapy contends that with a doctor's supervision, consuming what you are allergic to might eliminate the allergy.

Desensitization or oral immunotherapy (OIT) has been around since the early 1900s. It involves tricking the body to ignore an allergy and then building up a tolerance.

It's controversial because despite being around for decades, it is still considered experimental and there are dangers involved. But one local family says it has changed their lives.

Life Changing and Life Saving

It is meal time at the Harris household. Mom, Angie, is going through the pantry looking for cereal and doughnuts for this morning's breakfast. Luckily, there are no worries about what 6-year-old Ella can't eat. But there used to be.

"She could, if she had a peanut or anything that touched the surface where she ate, she could have a reaction and die," says Chad Harris, Ella's dad.

Ella's 4-year-old sister Sienna has no allergies, but Ella is very allergic to peanuts. That risk of death weighed heavy on her parents.

"I felt like I wanted to be in a bubble," says Angie,"not go anywhere, take her anywhere. It was scary. It was living in a lot of fear."

Last year, while eating out at a restaurant, Ella had a terrible reaction to pasta sauce. The sauce wasn't well marked and had been made in a facility with peanuts. It was the worst reaction Ella had experienced.

Angie and Chad decided they would do whatever it took to "cure" their daughter of her allergy. They had heard about oral immunotherapy clinical trials in North Carolina and considered moving there to participate. Then, they discovered Dr. Chad Mayer, in Detroit.

Mayer had just started working using oral immunotherapy on his allergy patients. At the time, he had one patient undergoing the treatment. The Harris' decided Ella would be his second patient.

The Therapy

Mayer says the treatment of oral immunotherapy is two-fold. The first step is to desensitize the body to the allergen. The second step is to build a tolerance to that allergen.

"You are basically tricking the body into thinking it shouldn't have a reaction to it," says Mayer.

It is complicated and time intensive, but Mayer says it works in 80% of patients.

Mayer administered a tiny amount of peanut to Ella and overtime increased the dose.

On the first day of treatment, Mayer gave Ella 1 microgram of peanut protein. That is so small, it isn't measurable by an average person. There are 1,000 micrograms in 1 milligram. 1 peanut equals 250 milligrams.

Over the course of a day the dosage of peanut protein was increased every 15 minutes. As soon as she felt symptoms, the treatment would stop and Ella would take home a dose to take twice a day, everyday. Over time that dose is increased.

On the first day of treatment, Ella was able to handle 1/600th of a peanut. Over a period of several months, she was able to work her way up to several peanuts a day. Now, she can eat as many peanuts as she wants. But, she has to eat peanuts everyday to make sure her body keeps its tolerance.

The treatment is controversial. Some say the treatment is still experimental and doesn't work for every patient. Critics worry doctors like Mayer are putting allergy sufferers at risk of death.

"You always have to weigh risk verses benefit -- what is the risk of doing a procedure or taking a medication verses the benefit," says Mayer.

A Relief

For the Harris family, those benefits have been life changing. Ella's parents say it is such a relief to know their daughter is not risking death if she accidentally eats something made with peanuts.
"That was our fear -- it wasn't about we want her to eat peanuts, it was about safety," says Angie.

For more on Dr. Mayer and his work in oral immunotherapy: Http://