We've seen various research efforts aiming to cure nut allergies in people, from tricking the immune system into ignoring certain proteins to building up a tolerance, or using common gut bacteria. But Wade Yang from the University of Florida (UF) is taking a different approach. Rather than altering the body's response to peanut allergens, he is altering the peanuts themselves.

Yang, who is an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition and member of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is using pulsed light to inactivate proteins within peanuts that trigger an allergic response. Starting out two years ago using the technique on peanut extract, Yang has now moved onto whole peanuts.

The technique involves delivering pulses of ultraviolet light using a system that consists of two lamps filled with xenon, two cooling blowers, one treatment chamber with a conveyor belt, and a control module. The bursts of light reduce the allergenic potential of the major peanut proteins Ara h1-h3, so that human antibodies don't recognize them as allergens.

So far he has been able to remove 80 percent of peanut allergens from whole peanuts, with the ultimate goal to remove 99.9 percent (Yang says removing 100 percent of peanut allergens would run the risk of destroying a peanut's texture, color, flavor and nutrition). He adds that if the amount of allergenic protein per peanut can be cut from 150 mg to 1.5 mg, they would be safe for 95 percent of people with peanut allergies to eat.

"This process proves that pulsed light can inactivate the peanut allergenic proteins and indicates that pulsed light has a great potential in peanut allergen mitigation," Yang said. "The latest study moves one step closer to the actual production."

Wade Yang, left, has used pulsed light to remove 80 percent of the allergens from a whole peanut (Photo: UF/IFAS file photo)

Although Yang's experiments have so far been restricted to the lab, he hopes to eventually conduct clinical trials on animals and humans. He has also only focused on peanuts, although pulsed light has also been shown to reduce allergen levels in soybean, almond and shrimp protein extracts.

His study appears online in the journal Food and Bioprocess Technology.

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