Helping kids overcome food allergies

New research from UBC’s Dr. Edmond Chan promises to help older and high-risk children.

Food allergies affect nearly 600,000 Canadian children and one in two Canadian households. But a cutting-edge research program led by UBC’s Dr. Edmond Chan is helping B.C. children overcome these challenges — even allowing kids to safely consume the foods that would have previously caused a near-fatal reaction.

Dr. Chan and his team at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute are developing what’s called food allergy immunotherapies. These innovative treatments involve gradually exposing children to allergens under medical supervision, with the hope that, over time, they will build up resilience and be able to safely consume the food at home.

In 2019, the team at the Food Allergy Immunotherapy Program was the first in the world to show that oral immunotherapy (OIT) for pre-schoolers was safe and effective in the real world.

The OIT protocol involves a “build-up phase” of several months. Patients visit a clinic every two weeks to ingest an increasingly higher dose of an allergen under medical supervision. When they reach a certain dose — usually around 300 milligrams (mg) of protein — they enter a “maintenance phase” during which they take that target daily dose at home. After a year of maintenance doses, approximately four out of five patients are able to pass an oral challenge test in which they tolerate a much higher dose of 4,000 mg of protein.

However, the build-up phase is risky for older children and those with a history of severe reactions. Dr. Chan’s group has been looking for a safer way to get this at-risk group of patients to the maintenance phase.

Now, new research from the team has revealed a safe path for these high-risk youth —sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) — and it involves placing smaller amounts of food allergens under the tongue.

“Our work confirms the safety and effectiveness of SLIT for older children and adolescents with multiple food allergies at higher risk of severe reaction.”

Dr. Edmond Chan

In a new study, Dr. Chan and his team found SLIT to be as safe and effective for high-risk older children and adolescents as oral immunotherapy is for pre-schoolers.

“Our work confirms the safety and effectiveness of SLIT for older children and adolescents with multiple food allergies at higher risk of severe reaction,” said Dr. Chan. “These are patients for whom oral immunotherapy would typically be denied because it’s felt to be too risky, so this could be the best approach for that population.”

They recruited about 180 such patients between the ages of four and 18, most with multiple food allergies. The SLIT protocol (started when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were in place) required patients to have virtually supervised appointments three to five times over several months to build up to a small dose — in most cases, just two mg of protein — which is absorbed through the membranes under the tongue rather than swallowed and ingested.

Dr. Edmond Chan (left) poses with study participant Dario Filippelli, who was all smiles after passing his oral food challenge. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Edmond Chan)

The patients’ caregivers learned how to mix and administer these doses at home using novel recipes based on products you can buy at the grocery store, developed with the team’s research dietitian. A wide variety of allergens were treated, including peanut, other legumes, tree nuts, sesame, other seeds, egg, cow’s milk, fish, wheat, shrimp and other allergens. Patients took these doses daily for one to two years.

“It takes up to twice as long as oral immunotherapy, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way, because we needed the superior safety of SLIT for these older kids that are felt to be more severe,” said Dr. Chan.

While most patients had mild symptoms during the build-up phase, none had severe reactions during either build-up or maintenance. Seventy per cent of those tested at the end of the protocol could tolerate 300 mg of their allergen — a success rate nearly as high as that for oral immunotherapy.

The results were encouraging for a therapy that any family can undertake at home with guidance from professionals.

A father gives his child a dose of cashew milk under the virtual supervision of a nurse with the Food Allergy Immunotherapy Program. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Edmond Chan)

“Besides safety considerations in older children, allergists are often quite burdened by the oral immunotherapy build-up phase, where a patient may require 11 or more visits to the clinic. They just don’t feel they have the capacity to offer that many visits in their office,” said Dr. Chan.

“In our clinic, we are starting to do more home-based approaches because the demand for medical appointments that would allow supervision far outstrips the supply. We are trying to develop an approach, based on data, that matches a patient’s risk level with the appropriate amount of supervision. Our SLIT data suggests that home-based SLIT build-up is safe.”

Ultimately, the trial highlights an alternative that allergists should now consider for patients who cannot safely undertake oral immunotherapy. The trade-off for greater safety is simply a longer timeline, but it comes with the benefit of keeping clinics free for those who need them most.

The study was published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Published: May 6, 2024