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Ever since a bite-size peanut butter cracker made him sputter and cough and break out in hives when he was a toddler, Carter Grodi has been under doctors’ orders to stay away from peanuts. He brought his own cupcake to school birthday parties, learned to read food labels and turned 15 without ever tasting a Kit Kat, Twix or Three Musketeers bar, all of which may contain traces of peanut because they are made in facilities that process the nuts.

But last year, Carter, now 16, gorged on those candies for the first time without having a reaction. He had just completed a year-long clinical trial of an oral immunotherapy regimen that aims to reduce children’s sensitivity to peanut allergens by gradually exposing them to peanut protein over the course of six months, starting with minute amounts that are carefully measured and increased incrementally under medical supervision as tolerance develops.

The goal of the treatment is not to cure the allergy or enable children to eat peanut butter sandwiches, but to reduce the risk that an accidental exposure to trace amounts will trigger a life-threatening reaction in someone with a severe allergy, and relieve the fear and anxiety that go along with severe peanut allergies.

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The results, announced Sunday at a conference of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in Seattle, may lead to approval of what could be the first oral medication that ameliorates reactions in children with severe peanut allergies.

After six months of treatment followed by six months of maintenance therapy, two-thirds of the 372 children who received the treatment were able to ingest 600 milligrams or more of peanut protein – the equivalent of two peanuts – without developing allergic symptoms. By contrast, only 4 per cent of the 124 children who had been given a placebo powder were able to consume the same amount of peanut without reacting.

Experts who were not involved in the trial said the outcomes exceeded their expectations, calling the results “potentially life-saving.” But they also cautioned that the treatment does not cure peanut allergies and should not be attempted at home. They emphasized that children who complete the regimen need to continue to eat a peanut-free diet and may need to keep up maintenance therapy with minute doses of peanut, possibly for the rest of their lives.

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