FRIDAY, Feb. 13, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A new herbal formula based in ancient Chinese medicine may be able to control allergic reactions to peanuts and other foods, researchers from New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine report.
Food allergies are potentially life-threatening for children and adults. Food allergies among children have increased 18 percent since 1997, and in 2007, some 3 million U.S. children had food allergies, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Currently, there is no treatment for the allergies, so avoidance is the only protection.
"We can reverse the peanut allergic reaction," said lead researcher Dr. Xiu-Min Li, director of the Center for Chinese Herbal Therapy for Allergy and Asthma at Mount Sinai.
In addition, protection from allergic reactions to peanuts persisted for almost nine months after treatment was stopped, Li said. "The herbal formula can stop peanut allergy and produce a prolonged protection," she said. "This formula may be effective for human peanut allergy."
The report was published in the February online edition of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
For the study, Li's team tested their new herbal remedy, called Food Allergy Herbal Formula (FAHF-2), on mice allergic to peanuts. They found that the formula protected mice from allergic reactions from peanuts.
In fact, FAHF-2 protected the animals from anaphylaxis for more than 36 weeks after treatment was stopped. This is one-quarter of the mouse life span, Li noted.
Li's team has also shown the formula protects mice against other food allergies including tree nut, fish and shellfish.
Based on these findings, FAHF-2 has been given investigational new drug approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; a human trial started last year.
The trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of the remedy for a variety of food allergies including peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish, Li said. "The results of the trial have shown that FAHF-2 is safe and well-tolerated," she noted.
In addition to FAHF-2, Li's team has developed an herbal formula to treat asthma. That formula is also being tested in human trials, she said.
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said that no matter where it comes from, a cure for peanut allergy would be an important breakthrough.
"This paper suggests that traditional Chinese medicine may offer promising therapy for peanut allergy," Katz said. "This is less surprising than it may seem."
First, it is probable that the use of herbs as medical therapy over a span of many centuries would distinguish the helpful from the useless and harmful by a process of trial-and-error, Katz said. Second, most drugs are derived from plants. "So, the actual differences between pharmacotherapy and herbal therapy are differences of degree, not kind," he said.
When traditional Chinese medicine works, doctors want to know the science of how it works, Katz said. "But for the sake of their patients, conventional practitioners should look past terminology that may make them wince to see the promise of new and potentially effective treatments."
Allergic reactions to food can range from mild hives to vomiting to difficulty breathing to anaphylaxis, the most severe reaction. Anaphylaxis causes muscles to contract, blood vessels to dilate and fluid to leak from the bloodstream into the tissues. This can result in narrowing of the upper or lower airways, low blood pressure, shock or a combination of these symptoms, and also can lead to a loss of consciousness and even death.
For more information on food allergies, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.