Last year, scientists from the University of Chicago found that a probiotic therapy using a common gut bacteria prevented sensitization to peanut allergens – in mice. Now researchers at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, have shown that a similar probiotic treatment, this time involving Lactobacillus rhamnosus, has a similar effect, but this time in children.

Children with allergies present a huge challenge for parents and carers, with youngsters having a propensity to stick just about anything in their mouths and swapping lunches in the schoolyard having potentially fatal consequences. With Australia and New Zealand boasting the dubious honor of having among the highest prevalence of allergic disorders in the developed world, Professor Mimi Tang and her team had plenty of potential subjects to choose from for their research into a potential treatment.

Their 18-month study saw over 60 children with peanut allergies orally given either a placebo, or a dose of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a bacteria that is sometimes used in yogurt and dairy products, along with a peanut protein. While the probiotic was given in a fixed daily dose, the amount of peanut protein started out very low and was gradually stepped up every two weeks until the maintenance dose of 2 g was reached.

Two to five weeks after the end of the treatment, the ability of the child to tolerate peanut was tested, with the researchers finding that of the 56 children that completed the trial, 23 of the 28 children (82.1 percent) given the probiotic treatment, (as well as one of the 28 (3.6 percent) who received a placebo), were able to safely eat peanuts.

"The likelihood of success was high," says Professor Tang. "If nine children were given probiotic and peanut therapy, seven would benefit. It appears that we have been able to modify the allergic response to peanut such that the immune system produces protective responses rather than a harmful response to the peanut protein."

Although predictably excited by the results, Professor Tang is keen to point out that the study was conducted under close medical supervision and obviously should not be tried at home. They also stress that additional research needs to be done to establish whether the patients will continue exhibit peanut tolerance years after the completion of the study.