Science & Technology

McGill University Health Centre Finds Cures for Life-Threatening Dairy Allergies

For children with severe food allergies, mealtime can be the most challenging part of the day.  Families with young children who have allergies are especially affected, as parents must constantly worry about what their children are eating. Recent results out of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) offer newfound hope to parents and children alike.

A team of pediatric allergists and researchers at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the MUHC announced this week that they had successfully desensitized over 20 children of their life-threatening dairy allergies through their immunotherapy research program.

“The kids are just so happy to go out to pizza with their friends, to be able to have yogurt, to be able to have cheese, to be able to have chocolate, all the stuff they really have never been able to,” said Duncan Lejtenyi, a McGill alum and Clinical Research Coordinator of the study.

Many of the patients suffered from life-threatening anaphylactic reactions to dairy before treatment. Anaphylaxis is an autoimmune response that causes blood pressure to suddenly drop and airways to narrow. It is one of the most dangerous allergic reactions and can occur after someone is exposed to even small traces of an allergen. If the allergic reaction is caught early, an antihistamine, like Benadryl, can often stop anaphylaxis; however, if Benadryl doesn’t work, an Epipen is the only option. As hospital visits are required after Epipen administration, severe food allergies can mean frequent—and expensive—visits to the emergency room.

The research at the MUHC focuses on the immune system’s response to allergens.  It is a form of immunotherapy which desensitizes the patient to milk.  The study started with children between the ages of six and nineteen being given a food challenge. This test is used to verify that the child has a true allergy. If the test is positive, the patient then begins a five month process in which they consume small amounts of dairy everyday. Each week, the dosage of the allergen is increased. The theory is that the patient’s hyperactive immune system will eventually familiarize itself to the allergen and no longer react to it. So far, 22 patients have been completely cured of their dairy allergy by the end of their five month trial.

To confirm the success of their desensitization, each patient consumed a full 300 millitre glass of milk.

Once the patient builds tolerance, they need to consume a small amount of dairy everyday to stay reaction free.  The study monitored the patients for a year after the end of their initial treatment to determine if they remained desensitized.

Lejtenyi pointed out that because this is a multi-centre study, the data have not been fully aggregated yet. While the results of the study are certainly promising, one of the lead clinicians was quick to point out that further research is necessary.

“The sample size is too small to draw conclusions,” Dr. Moshe Ben-Shoshan said during a Facebook Live chat on Sept. 9.

Furthermore, not every patient was cured. Five children dropped out of the study because their symptoms were only aggravated by the desensitization regimen. As the study expands, the researchers hope that more conclusive results for why the treatment worked in some cases but not others will be answered.

Food allergy rates have more than doubled in the last decade. This testing presents potentially life changing results for families dealing with severe allergies. In addition to reducing the burden on emergency room visits, it lessens the financial and emotional stress of families, as children are able to interact more freely with their peers.

“You don’t want to say it’s life changing,” Lejtenyi said, “but it is life changing and it’s been a great study to work on.”

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