Researchers at Deakin University believe their recent findings may lead to a better understanding of why peanuts trigger life-threatening allergic reactions and could lead to reactions being prevented in the first place.
"Peanut allergy is a major clinical problem in Australia for both children and adults, but what makes peanut allergens life-threatening isn’t well understood," explained Dr Cenk Suphioglu, senior lecturer in Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences. "As opposed to previous research looking at individual peanut allergens in isolation, we looked at the whole peanut – the allergens and the non-allergens.
"We found that peanut proteins interact with one another to form ‘super-allergens’.
"These super-allergens, we believe, could be responsible for peanuts triggering potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis, the most severe form of allergic reaction. We are currently working to test this theory."
Dr Suphioglu and his Allergy Research Group are also researching ways of blocking the peanut allergy reaction.
"In simple terms, an allergic reaction is the result of an allergen reacting with antibodies produced by the body in response to that allergen," he said.
"If we can prevent the peanut allergens from reacting with the antibodies, we believe we can prevent or reduce the allergic reaction from occurring in the first place.
"We have recently been successful in identifying a substance that significantly blocks, or inhibits, the interaction between human antibodies and the major peanut allergens. Now we are working to better understand this inhibitor and how we can enhance its ability to block or reduce peanut allergy reactions."
The importance of Dr Suphioglu’s research was recognised late last year by the Ramaciotti Foundations with a $50,000 grant to help him continue his work in this field. Managed by Perpetual Trustees, the Foundations are described as being collectively one of the largest private contributors to biomedical research in Australia.
Dr Suphioglu said that the work being done by his team also has potential benefits for all allergy sufferers.
"Taking a step further back in how an allergic reaction occurs, we are also carrying out research into how we can prevent the allergen specific antibodies from being produced at all.
"In an allergic reaction, the body produces cell signalling molecules called cytokines to trigger the production of antibodies. If we can neutralise the cytokines involved with the allergic reaction, we can potentially block or reduce the production of the antibodies.
"In recent preliminary results we have successfully identified a substance that interacts with one of the key cytokines involved in the allergic reaction. We are now assessing the capacity of this substance to block or reduce antibody production in the allergic reaction."
Dr Suphioglu is confident that his team’s allergy research work will result in better treatments for allergy sufferers.
"I believe our research into understanding the molecular and allergenic properties of major peanut allergens together with our work on how to prevent or inhibit allergic reactions will contribute to the development of safer and more effective methods for peanut allergy diagnosis, prevention and treatment as well as benefit sufferers of other allergies."
(Source: Deakin University: February 2010)