AFRI in ACTION: Preventing Peanut Allergies

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Preventing Peanut AllergiesPeanuts are an excellent source of vitamins and nutrients, rich with energy, and an important part of diets worldwide. However, peanuts threaten the health of roughly 2.8 million Americans, leading many families and food companies to avoid them entirely. And, this problem is growing with the prevalence of peanut allergies tripling in children over the last decade. But what if we could produce a peanut that didn’t trigger severe allergic reactions? What would this mean for the farmers, food companies, and families impacted by the allergy? While “hypoallergenic peanuts” may sound like science fiction, Dr. Jianmei Yu and her team at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T), an 1890 landgrant university, has made it science fact. Under a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) launched in 2011, Dr. Jianmei Yu and her colleagues, Dr. Mohamed Ahmenda and Dr. Ipek Goktepe, developed a unique enzyme-based process that removes 98 percent of the allergens while maintaining the peanut’s one of a kind flavor, color, and nutritional value. In skin prick tests conducted in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the treated peanuts reduced allergic responses by 60 percent. Though this doesn’t mean that people with extreme allergies will be consuming peanuts any time soon, it could have a profound impact for those with milder allergies and for companies looking to reduce cross-contamination risks and expand their list of products containing peanuts. It could also result in allergy treatments where patients with allergies could be exposed to small amounts of the hypoallergenic peanuts to increase their immunity. 

“This research has a pretty wide impact. It can help reduce the stress for families who deal with the allergy and increase peanut production for farmers and the food industry.” – Dr. Jianmei Yu

This market potential was not lost on Xemerge, a Toronto firm focused on commercializing emerging technologies. They recently signed an exclusive agreement with N.C. A&T to license the patented process. In explaining their interest, Xemerge pointed out that the process was non-GMO and clinically tested. Xemerge and N.C. A&T have launched a spin-off company, Alrgn Bio, to continue refining the process in order to bring the hypoallergenic peanuts even closer to the grocery shelves. As for Dr. Yu, she hopes to apply soon for another grant, this time looking at developing a similar process to reduce allergens in soybeans or tree nuts.

Photo: Dr. Jianmei Yu, an assistant research professor for N.C. A&T, working with graduate student Davida Harrison on the new hypoallergenic peanut. (Lee Adams/School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, N.C. A&T State University)