The Peanut Solution

Peanuts are the most common allergy-causing food. NC A&T researchers have discovered an enzyme solution that can break down allergy-causing proteins in peanuts, essentially creating a hypoallergenic peanut.

You see it, just a few dozen feet down the hall in front of you. And the timing is perfect, because your stomach is rumbling, asking for a snack. Inside the vending machine sits something that will make your tummy happy.

So you stop, your eyes scanning the selection of treats, realizing that some are healthier than others. You insert the dollar bill and change. You hit the button and watch the arm on the rack inside the vending machine turn to release the treat. You hear the satisfying clunk as it hits the bottom of the vending machine. You insert your hand, pull it out, and then read the back of the packaging.

“This food item may contain peanuts,” it reads.

For millions of Americans with a peanut allergy, those words are not only disappointing. Those words can also be dangerous. It’s disappointing because they can’t enjoy the snack. But it’s also dangerous because the allergy-causing proteins in peanuts can trigger life-threatening allergy symptoms.

Those proteins make peanuts one of the most common allergy-causing foods. In fact, almost three million Americans suffer from a peanut allergy. And because the proteins in peanuts are similar to the proteins found in tree nuts, people allergic to peanuts may also be allergic to tree nuts such as almonds or walnuts.

But now there’s hope for those with peanut allergies, thanks to a discovery in a lab at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University. It promises to make the hypoallergenic peanut a reality and make peanut allergies a thing of the past.

“We use a technology that lets the peanut and the enzyme fully contact, so the enzyme can fully diffuse into the peanut and break down the proteins,” explains Dr. Jianmei Yu, a research scientist in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at NC A&T. “It doesn’t change the peanut significantly, and the structure of the peanut remains the same.”

The process uses roasted peanuts that have been removed from the shell and the skin. The peanuts are then soaked in a food-grade enzyme solution. The peanut absorbs the solution, which breaks down two key allergenic proteins. The peanut is still a peanut, but two key allergens are almost gone.

In fact, if you place bowls of treated and untreated peanuts side-by-side, the peanuts look identical. If you take a peanut from each bowl, hold them and then break them apart, the peanuts feel the same. That same sharp crack sound when the peanut breaks apart comes from both nuts. The peanuts also smell the same and even taste the same.

Researchers say lab tests and human clinical trials show the peanut allergens are reduced by more than 90%. The process appears to be so successful NC A&T has signed a licensing agreement for the technology with Xemerge, a company that commercializes food technologies.

“Every once in a while the stars line up where you can do some good, help some people, and contribute to both the industry and scientific community where you can move things ahead,” says an excited Johnny Rodrigues, Chief Commercialization Officer with Xemerge. He sees great potential in the technology.

“There is an opportunity where we would like to partner with those correct industry partners on the processing side to make sure we could have every peanut on the planet treated,” adds Rodrigues. “So we get to that emotional or psychological component where it's trusted. That fear [of exposure to the peanut allergens] goes away.”

This isn’t the first technology developed to remove peanut allergens, but what makes the technology at NC A&T different is that it doesn’t involve chemicals or radiation and the peanut crop is not genetically modified. The solution that is used is a food-grade enzyme solution, not a new chemical.

It’s because of that more natural solution that researchers are also looking at using the treated peanuts in immunotherapy. Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts would be given to patients to help build up a resistance to the peanut allergens.

“It's important for us to move this forward as a partnership because there is an opportunity for further research, further development and also further patents,” explains Louis Judge, Director of Technology Transfer at NC A&T. He’s in charge of bringing technology developed at the university to companies in the private sector. That way, the developments can not only benefit the general public, but the university can make money from the products and help fund other research.

“So as we develop the technology we will work with the company and the inventor, and hopefully help the public as well as the university,” adds Judge.

If all goes well, and further testing proves the technology does indeed do everything it promises, school lunches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will never be the same again!

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