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Nuts with Allergies

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For most mice the only thing deadly about the peanut is when peanut butter is smeared at the base of a spring trap.

But mice in the laboratory of the innovative Paul Bryce, at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, experience a different kind of discontent after nibbling the tasty extract.

Nose scratching, mouth swelling, shaking and death are some symptoms that mice with a peanut allergy display. While these fuzzy omnivores generally don't develop food allergies, the Chicago-based research team was able to induce an allergic reaction by using a toxin derived from a common bacteria.

These findings, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, imply that eating food contaminated with Staphylcoccus aureus (S. aureus) might predispose one to develop food allergies. In the experiments, mice were fed a mixture of whole peanut extract and Staphylococcus enterotoxin B.

"The history between S. aureus and allergic diseases led us to use staphylococcal toxins to stimulate food allergy in animals," Bryce was quoted in a release.

In 2006, an NIH expert food allergy committee recognized the importance of developing animal models that modulate sensitization to foods. Other animal systems use different bacterial toxins to help elicit allergies, but these don't encompass many symptoms associated with typical allergic reactions, like swelling and breathing problems.

Food allergies affect a significant proportion of people in developed nations, approximately 12 million in the U.S. That's about 1 in 25. And when you're talking about kids, the numbers approach 1 in 12. Peanut allergy in particular is often life-threatening, responsible for 100 to 200 deaths every year in the U.S.

The researchers have also noticed that peanut reaction severity varies depending on the mouse strain. By investigating the reaction in different genetic backgrounds, future studies may unveil pathways involved with allergic responses (peanuts and beyond) that might be candidates for allergy treatment or prevention.