But, Wood points out, the major food allergy categories have some key differences. For example, nut and shellfish allergies turn out to be rather diverse fields that reflect the relationships of the foods themselves. Walnuts and cashews are quite different nuts, evolutionarily speaking—just as lobsters (crustaceans) and mussels (mollusks) are fairly far apart on the marine phylogenic charts. So trying to treat entire categories is "going to be considerably more complex," Wood says.
Parsing out that problem has already begun. If researchers can isolate the peptides of each allergen's noxious protein, they might be able to make treatments targeted to individual patients' allergy profiles. But right now, scientists are still unsure what components of peanut, milk or fish proteins that upset so many people's immune systems. Studies are underway to test various possible peptides in mice that have been made allergic to some of these problematic foods.
And if scientists can isolate these food peptides, they might be able to combine them for more comprehensive treatments for people who have allergies to multiple food categories—much like the current customized allergy shots for people who have more than one airborne allergy. In the June Pediatrics study 30.4 percent of children with food allergies had reactions to more than one subset of food.
For now, however, all of the food allergy therapies remain in research labs. "The early results are promising, but they're really [just] studies right now," Burks says. And as much as parents are anxious to start their children on them, he adds, "they're not ready for clinical practice." But if the work continue to go well, he says, some of the oral therapies might reach the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval as soon as 2012.