The news has been hailed by a leading allergy charity as offering real hope to food allergy sufferers. Such news however may put the dampeners on the free-from food market that has been enjoying sales growth of over 300 per cent in the UK since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel.
Dr. Ronald van Ree from the University of Amsterdam told attendees in Norwich that the key finding of the research presented was: A clever combination of biotechnology (hypo-allergenic recombinant allergens) and vaccine-development (novel adjuvants based on anti-inflammatory molecules from pathogens) [to] provide new tools to treat food allergy.
An estimated four per cent of adults and eight per cent of children in the 380m EU population suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.
Recent advances in biotechnology have identified the specific molecules in foods that induce food allergies. Such knowledge could also lead to genetic engineering techniques to change these molecules so that they no longer cause an allergic response, said van Ree.
"Importantly, this allows scientists to develop hypo-allergenic variants of these molecules for application in safer immunotherapy that will induce little or no side-effects," he said.
Van Ree also said that great progress is being made in understanding the mechanism of allergen-specific immunotherapy. He said that there appeared to be an overlap between the mechanism of immune response to an allergen and that of inflammation. Such a link could lead to the development of substances that could achieve the beneficial effect of immunotherapy quicker than the current three to five years.
"Taken together, these new developments provide good opportunities to develop strategies for the treatment of food allergies, both preventive and curative," he said.
The next steps in this work, said van Ree, was to actually combine the hypo-allergenic food variants with the anti-inflammatories, and then to test them in animals and eventually humans.
Allergen labelling regulations that came into force on 25 November require companies to label all pre-packed foods if they contain any of the 12 listed allergenic foods as an ingredient.
The mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives covers cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
But avoidance in early life for fear of developing an allergy may not be the best way to prevent the sensitisation to a potential food allergen, said van Ree.
"High-dose exposure in the first year(s) of life has been shown to be correlated to protection rather than being a risk factor. This has most clearly been shown for cat allergen, but there is some support for a similar mechanism for peanut allergy," he said.
"This offers the possibility to develop strategies for preventive vaccination (exposure) for important food allergens like peanut."
Muriel Simmons, chief executive of British charity Allergy UK, told FoodNavigator.com the research was exciting and full of promise for people with food allergies.
"There is usually only bad news surrounding allergy, i.e. lack of services for the increasing number of people being affected by allergy, but the reported research is obviously very exciting and holds out real hope for people with allergies and we will continue to watch developments with great interest," she said.
"It is the light at the end of a long dark tunnel."