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Asthma drug can help reduce allergic reactions for those with severe food allergies

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows just how effective an old asthma drug can be in preventing allergic reactions in people with food allergies. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the FDA approved the drug earlier this month, making it the first medication approved to reduce allergic reactions after accidental exposures.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For lots of families with food allergies, there's constant worry. So when an opportunity came along to participate in a trial of a drug that could help prevent allergic reactions, Ann Marqueling and her husband, Kevin Wang, jumped at the chance. Their 5-year-old son is allergic to multiple foods, including peanuts and eggs.

KEVIN WANG: Most of the time, it's this constant vigilance because, you know, he gets a whiff of peanut butter, he can go into anaphylactic shock. So unless you live with it, you don't understand how anxious you can get.

AUBREY: Every few weeks for about four months, they gave their son an injection. The drug being tested, called Xolair, has been on the market for years to treat asthma and hives. Now researchers at Stanford were evaluating how well it can prevent reactions in people who've consumed small amounts of food they're allergic to. Ann Marqueling says their son seemed to improve significantly.

ANN MARQUELING: That was reassuring for us, even just to see him being able to tolerate more than he had at the beginning.

AUBREY: Dr. Sharon Chinthrajah of Stanford University is the study's senior author. She found after four months on the drug, most of the participants taking Xolair were able to eat some peanut without getting a serious allergic reaction.

SHARON CHINTHRAJAH: Two-thirds of those patients were able to tolerate up to 600 mg of peanut and up to 1,000 mg of other foods, which is amazing. Some patients were even able to tolerate much more than that.

AUBREY: She says taking the drug doesn't mean that people can now start eating the foods they're allergic to. The hope for the future is that there will be ways to prevent or reverse food allergies. But for now, the idea is to give patients peace of mind if they accidentally consume a food they're allergic to.

CHINTHRAJAH: The idea is that this medication will add an additional layer of protection.

AUBREY: Dr. Alkis Togias is an immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He explains people with food allergies produce immunoglobulin E, known as IgE. It's a type of antibody to foods they can't tolerate. Xolair works by binding to the IgE and halting a reaction.

ALKIS TOGIAS: So Xolair takes away IgE, and there is very little IgE left to cause an allergic reaction. And it is a breakthrough because it offers, for the first time, an option for patients with multiple food allergies.

AUBREY: Ann Marqueling and Kevin Wang say parents may feel less pressure to constantly monitor everything their child is eating.

MARQUELING: We feel much more comfortable. You know, we're not going to feed him peanut butter sandwiches, but we feel much comfortable saying, you can go to Charlie's party, and we don't have to ask beforehand, hey, Charlie, remember, no nuts, no peanuts, no tree nuts, no eggs, blah, blah, blah.

AUBREY: They say they don't feel they need to helicopter his every move, which makes it easier for everyone.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKYWAY MAN'S "DINNER WITH THE NEIGHBOR'S KIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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