Immunotherapy reduces the sensitivity and risk of reaction to certain allergens. Having been widely used for hayfever, pet and house dust mite allergies, it is now available for certain food allergens, aiming to improve the quality of life for children and their families.
What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is the practice of administering gradually increasing doses of an allergen in order to reduce the sensitivity and risk of reacting to it. It was first carried out over 100 years ago and is now in widespread use around the world, in particular for hayfever and allergies to house dust mite and pets. It is sometimes referred to as ‘allergy vaccination’ or ‘desensitisation’. More recently, there has been intensive interest in the possibility of applying the same principle to help treat food allergies, which can be potentially life threatening.
What is food immunotherapy?
Oral Desensitisation (OD) to food, also known as Oral Tolerance Induction (OTI or most commonly OIT), is a treatment that involves giving very small, but gradually increasing, amounts of the food that the child is allergic to. The intention of OIT is to increase the tolerance to the food so that larger amounts of the food can be consumed without causing any symptoms and, as a result, accidental exposures to small amounts should not cause reactions. This treatment has been most studied for milk, egg and peanut. In early 2020, PALFORZIA, a peanut containing capsule, became the first licensed food immunotherapy treatment. Increasingly, OIT has been used for allergies to sesame, treenuts and wheat although as the safety and effectiveness of these seems to mirror that of the other allergens, there have been relatively few published studies, despite the treatment now being widely available in North America.
How does food immunotherapy work?
Over the past decade there has been a large increase in the number of research studies looking into desensitisation and these have included careful observation of how the treatment impacts on the immune system. It appears that regular exposure to the food causing allergy, but at a level below that which causes a reaction, causes the immune system to increase production of a specific antibody called IgG4. This has a blocking effect on the allergic antibody, known as IgE, and enhances tolerance to the food. As IgG4 levels increase, the effect is greater, allowing more of the food to be tolerated. We are still in the infancy of our understanding as to what is really happening at a molecular level but the science is advancing and we hope that soon there will be a simple blood test that will directly guide desensitisation. However, until we have such a ‘biomarker’, desensitisation is very much led by how well the patient is tolerating food and slowly increasing the level of exposure, rather than anything being gained by lots of blood tests.
Which food allergies can be treated with immunotherapy?
Most research has been done on desensitisation to milk, egg and particularly peanut. There are a small number of studies looking at OIT to other foods such as wheat, sesame and tree nuts and also using other methods e.g. using patches of food on the skin or putting drops under the tongue. PALFORZIA is the only licensed OIT product in the UK, EU and USA. However, OIT to a wide variety of foods is available in many parts of the world as part of routine clinical practice.
How long does the food immunotherapy process take?
This depends on the protocol being used – some are faster than others, as well as the response of the individual patient. A typical protocol will require approximately 8 – 12 steps when the dose of food allergen is increased with at least a two-week gap between doses. However, reactions or other factors (such as incidental illness or missed doses) may mean a longer gap between doses is required or this may just be preferred. Once the top dose (maintenance) has been reached, then the patient needs to continue to take this regularly to maintain the effect. The frequency of this dosing can be reduced (but not stopped) over time without apparent loss of effect.
Is food immunotherapy the right treatment for my child?
Even if your child is suitable for immunotherapy, it does not mean that it is the right treatment for them. For many patients, continuing to avoid the food they are allergic to, coupled with an appropriate emergency action plan is the right way to manage the allergy. Desensitisation carries a risk and also has an impact on your day-to-day life during the updosing period and beyond. If your child is medically suitable, there is an important process of shared decision making, alongside detailed information about the treatment, to help you decide if it is the right thing to do. We will not consider your child for treatment without going through this process and you will be required to sign a consent form to confirm that you have discussed the pros and cons of each approach.
Interested in desensitisation to other food allergens such as sesame, treenuts, milk, egg or wheat?
We hope to soon be able to offer desensitisation to sesame and treenuts. If you would like to know more about these treatments when they are available please click below:
Here’s what our patients have to say…
Each member of the team that we dealt with, whether medical or support staff, were excellent.
The support has been excellent throughout.
We had a clear plan from early in the process and managed to follow through with only a couple of amendments (which we made).
We have been impressed and very grateful for the speed at which our queries have been responded to.
Parents of Isaac, age 9, Isle of Wight
Excellent. All of the team were very efficient and we found the chart with the dates and dosage for the updosing appointments particularly helpful.
The team were easy to reach, including direct contact with the consultants, even at the weekend and over holiday periods.
The overall experience was excellent.
Parents of Ernie, age 7, Nottingham