When I was 11 years old, I brought a birthday party to a crashing stop. One of my best friends was celebrating her 12th birthday with burgers, ice cream, movies, and a slumber party. It was getting late as we sang in the car and ate ice cream, but I was ready to keep having fun. When some cross contamination from peanuts in my toppings brought the night to a screeching halt, however, I had to instead tried my best to remain calm as I was rushed the nearest hospital. In the United States alone, 15 million other people like me suffer from food allergies, terrified that one unclean chopping board or pan could be fatal.
The term “allergy” was coined in 1906, the same year a pediatrician desensitized a patient to an egg allergy. Starting with a 1/10,000th of an egg and slowly increasing the amount of egg ingestion over an eight month period, the patient was able to build up a tolerance to the allergen. The realization that allergies were an immunological phenomenon led to specific skin testing of suspected allergens on other patients with egg allergies, and subsequently to the widespread popularity of desensitization therapy for all food allergies. By the 1930s, however, numerous fatalities halted research in desensitization therapy and the only treatment available for food allergies was again just avoidance.
By the 1960s, IgE was discovered as the antibody responsible for many allergic reactions, and only as recently as the late 1980s were the first cases of fatal peanut allergies reported. Clinical trials with food-desensitization therapy have since restarted, but results are inconsistent and there are still a significant number of failures. Even when it is successful, this method only treats one food allergen, which is problematic for victims of food allergies, who are often affected by multiple allergens.
In 2005, Dr. Xiu-Min Li, a professor of pediatrics, allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai Hospital, began treating eczema as part of her clinical practice in New York. Shocked by the severity seen in many of her patients, she began using herbal remedies from her traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) training that she received as a teenager in Beijing. The effects of the herbal medicine, for something that often dismissed as “fake medicine,” were astoundingly positive. Drawing from this success, Dr. Li got the idea to apply the TCM techniques that had been used to treat eczema to food allergies, since both are Th2-mediated conditions.
She began trials of applying TCM remedies to the anaphylactic response of food allergies. The tested TCM remedy was created from a modification of Wu-Mei Wan (a combination of 10 herbs used for intestinal parasitic infection, gastroenteritis, and asthma) and Ling Shi (an additional herb with purported anti-inflammatory properties). The resultant 9-herb formula, Food Allergy Herbal Formula 2 (FAHF-2), has been used in and shown promise in both trials in mice and in early clinical trials.
Over the course of several years, treatment of FAHF-2 in peanut-allergic mouse trials has helped or even stopped acute allergic reactions, even after treatment has stopped. Overall, treatment with FAHF-2 showed histamine release was completely blocked and peanut-specific IgE declined significantly, meaning that mice who were previously severely allergic to peanuts now only had a mild allergy. And while IgE decreased, IgG2a levels, a protective antibody, increased. Because of this success, Dr. Li’s team began clinical trials in people aged 12-45 years who all had multiple food allergies. The trials had very successful results, and showed FAHF-2 was both safe and well-tolerated for the entire length of the clinical trial.The trials are ongoing, with a few experimental modifications (for example, butanol purification) to FAHF-2, but even though FDA approval has not yet been obtained, FAHF-2 is offered in Dr. Li’s clinical practice.
One of Li’s patients, Julie, is an exceptional high-school student and cheerleader who, despite attending a nut-free school, continued to have many nut-induced allergic reactions before FAHF-2 treatment. She was treated with FAHF-2 (50 pills/day) for a year and her reactions diminished significantly. By the time she was in college, she had stopped taking the 50 pills/day regimen, but nevertheless, when she ingested nuts on a trip to Europe, she showed absolutely no signs of an allergic reaction. She now is living free of any known food allergies, despite having discontinued her FAHF-2 treatment.
Julie’s experience is one of many that offer hope to the food allergic children of my generation. TCM and the modern scientific approach are finally melding to expand into a largely untouched area of research: the cure for food allergies.