Schools in the US are becoming "peanut free", some may ban food brought from home, and often severely allergic students sit at special "allergy free" tables at lunchtime. All in the fight against allergic reactions. Our parents (or at least most people over 40, I'd guess) would hardly remember a single conversation about food allergies at school back in their day! Yet "6 percent of young children have food allergies [today] —and the number of those with potentially fatal peanut allergy doubled between 1997 and 2002" (Newman, 2006).
So what is an allergic reaction? At the first exposure to an allergen, the body's cells produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E. This molecule hangs around in the cells, and upon a second exposure to the allergen, releases a cascade of irritating chemicals, giving you those itches, rashes, and blocked up noses.
Why this explosion of killer allergies in recent years? There seems to be a definite hereditary component to allergies, yet this doesn't explain the rise in the incidence of allergies. It seems that modern living is giving the allergens the upper hand: right from not breast-feeding our children long enough (if at all), to stress, increased antibiotic use, and ironically, the fact that we're just too darn hygienic these days! By not letting are children play in the mud, throw mud around and, well, eat mud, we're not giving their immune systems a decent workout by giving them time to get used to common allergens.
Well what can we do about this conundrum aside from keeping a pig in the living room (a famous study found this a preventative measure for asthma)? This is where the genetic engineers rub their hands with glee. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's Asthma and Allergy Center is creating a ragweed vaccine - a mix of the allergen from ragweed, along with chunks of its DNA. The DNA helps the body recognise the allergen and deal with it more effectively, preventing chronic inflammation. Other scientists are engineering plants and foods without the allergenic proteins. Pollen-less sunflowers have already been created. Scientists have developed hypoallergenic rye grass by means of gene silencing, and peanuts are being cross-bred to reduce the amounts of anaphylactic shock-inducing proteins.
Thanks to genetic engineering, maybe our peanut-fearing friends may one day not shy away from those tasty bar top treats. I say just let our children throw mud to their hearts content!
By James Croft (41782037).
Information sourced from:
Newman, J 2006, 'Allergies - Misery for All Seasons', National Geographic, viewed 2 April 2008, (http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/allergy-misery-article.html)
Stevens, C 2008, 'Saugus school board may ban homemade treats', The Daily Item, viewed 2 April 2008, (http://www.thedailyitemoflynn.com/articles/2008/03/11/news/news10.txt)