Like any life-threatening medical condition that affects children, food allergies can traumatize more than just the patient. My wife and I learned this one summer afternoon when our daughter was three years old.
Emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016.
At an ice cream parlor, I gave Samantha a lick of my pistachio cone; within seconds, red blotches erupted on her skin, her lips began to swell, and she complained that her throat felt funny. We rushed her to the nearest emergency room, where a doctor injected her with epinephrine. Explaining that the reaction, known as anaphylaxis, could have been fatal if left unchecked, he advised us to have her tested for nut allergies—and to start carrying an injector of our own.
After an allergist confirmed Sam's vulnerability to tree nuts and peanuts, we figured that keeping her safe would be relatively simple. But food allergies often come in bunches. Over the next year, she wound up back in the ER after eating bread with sesame seeds at an Italian restaurant, and again after slurping buckwheat noodles at our neighborhood Japanese. She hated eggs, so we discovered that (less severe) allergy only when she vomited after eating a variety of products containing them.
In recent years, a growing number of families have had to grapple with such challenges. An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies, or nearly 10 percent of the population—10 times the prevalence reported 35 years ago. The severity of symptoms seems to be increasing, too. According to a study released in January by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a Virginia-based nonprofit, insurance claims for anaphylactic food reactions rose 377 percent in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016.
Because food allergies most commonly emerge in childhood, these trends are largely driven by the young. An insurance-industry study found that emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016. Peanut allergies, once rare, tripled in kids between 1997 and 2008. "The first year, it was 1 in 250," says Scott Sicherer, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, who led that study. "When we did the next round of research, in 2002, it was 1 in 125. I thought there must be a mistake. But by 2008, it was 1 in 70."
The forces behind these dire statistics—as well as similar numbers throughout the developed world—have yet to be positively identified. But the leading suspects are elements of our modern lifestyle that can throw the immune system out of whack, prompting potentially deadly overreactions to harmless proteins. Although parents can take a few steps that might lessen their children's risk, societal changes may be needed to brighten the larger epidemiological picture.
Meanwhile, scientists are racing to develop therapies that can induce patients' hyped-up immune defenses to chill. And lately, they've made some big strides toward that goal.
A Variety of Culprits
In the United States, about 90 percent of allergic reactions come from eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. The list varies from country to country, depending on dietary customs, but what the trigger foods all have in common is proteins that can survive breakdown in the stomach and enter the bloodstream more or less intact.
"When we were kids, we played in the dirt. Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."
A food allergy results from a chain of biochemical misunderstandings. The first time the immune system encounters an allergen (as a protein that triggers an allergy is known), it mistakes the substance for a hostile invader—perhaps a parasite with a similar molecular profile. In response, it produces an antibody called immunoglobin E (IgE), which is designed to bind to a specific protein and flag it for attack. These antibodies circulate through the bloodstream and attach to immune-system foot soldiers known as mast cells and basophils, which congregate in the nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.
The next time the person is exposed to the allergen, the IgE antibodies signal the warrior cells to blast the intruder with histamines and other chemical weapons. Tissues in the affected areas swell and leak fluid; blood pressure may fall. Depending on the strength of the reaction, collateral damage to the patient can range from unpleasant—itching, runny nose, nausea—to catastrophic.
This kind of immunological glitchiness runs in families. Genome-wide association studies have identified a dozen genes linked to allergies of all types, and twin studies suggest that about 80 percent of the risk of food allergies is heritable. But why one family member shows symptoms while another doesn't remains unknown. Nor can genetics explain why food allergy rates have skyrocketed in such a brief period. For that, we must turn to the environment.
First, it's important to note that rates of all allergies are rising—including skin and respiratory afflictions—though none as rapidly or with as much risk of anaphylaxis as those involving food. The takeoff was already underway in the late 1980s, when British epidemiologist David P. Strachan found that children in larger households had fewer instances of hay fever. The reason, he suggested, was that their immune systems were strengthened by exposure to their siblings' germs. Since then, other researchers have discerned more evidence for Strachan's "hygiene hypothesis": higher rates of allergy (as well as autoimmune disorders) in cities versus rural areas, in industrialized countries versus developing ones, in lab animals raised under sterile conditions versus those exposed to germs.
Fending off a variety of pathogens, experts theorize, helps train the immune system to better distinguish friend from foe, and to respond to threats in a more nuanced manner. In an era of increasing urbanization, shrinking family sizes, and more sheltered lifestyles, such conditioning may be harder to come by. "When we were kids, we played in the dirt," observes Cathryn R. Nagler, a professor and food allergy researcher at the University of Chicago. "Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."
But other factors may be driving the allergy epidemic as well. More time indoors, for example, means less exposure to sunlight, which can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D—a nutrient crucial to immune system regulation. The growing popularity of processed foods filled with refined fats and sugars may play a role, along with rising rates of obesity, by promoting tissue inflammation that could increase some people's risk of immunological mayhem. And the surge in allergies also correlates with several trends that may be altering the human microbiome, the community of microbes (including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, among others) that inhabits our guts, skin, and bodily orifices.
The microbiome connection may be particularly relevant to food allergies. In 2014, a team led by Nagler published a landmark study showing that Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against these allergies. When the researchers fed peanut allergens to germ-free mice (born and raised in sterile conditions) and to mice treated with antibiotics as newborns (reducing their gut bacteria), the animals showed a strong immunological response. This sensitization could be reversed, however, by reintroducing Clostridia—but not another class of bacteria, Bacteroides—into the mice. Further experiments revealed that Clostridia caused immune cells to produce high levels of interleukin-22 (IL-22), a signaling molecule known to decrease the permeability of the intestinal lining.
"In simple terms," Nagler says, "what we found is that these bacteria prevent food allergens from gaining access to the blood in an intact form that elicits an allergic reaction."
A growing body of evidence suggests that our eating habits are throwing our gut microbiota off-balance, in part by depriving helpful species of the dietary fiber they feed on. Our increasing exposure to antibiotics and antimicrobial compounds may be harming our beneficial bugs as well. These depletions could affect kids from the moment they enter the world: Because babies are seeded with their mothers' microbiota as they pass through the birth canal, they may be inheriting a less diverse microbiome than did previous generations. And the rising rate of caesarian deliveries may be further depriving our children of the bugs they need.
On expert suggests two measures worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics.
So which culprit is most responsible for the food allergy upsurge? "The illnesses that we're measuring are complex," says Sicherer. "There are multiple genetic inputs, which interact with one another, and there are multiple environmental inputs, which interact with each other and with the genes. There's not one single thing that's causing this. It's a conglomeration."
What Parents Can Do
For anyone hoping to reduce their child's or their own odds of developing a food allergy (rates of adult onset are also increasing), the current state of science offers few guideposts. As with many other areas of health research, it's hard to know when the data is solid enough to warrant a particular course of action. A case in point: the American Academy of Pediatrics once recommended that children at risk of allergy to peanuts (as evidenced by family history, other food allergies, or eczema) wait to eat them until age three; now, the AAP advises those parents to start their babies at four months, citing epidemiological evidence that early exposure may prevent peanut allergies.
And it's all too easy for a layperson to draw mistaken conclusions from media coverage of such research—inferring, for instance, that taking commercially available probiotics might have a protective effect. Unfortunately, says Nagler, none of those products even contain the relevant kind of bacteria.
Although, as a research scientist, she refrains from giving medical advice, Nagler does suggest (based on a large body of academic literature) that two measures are worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics. Yet she acknowledges that it's not always possible to avoid the suspected risk factors for food allergies. Sometimes an antibiotic is a lifesaving necessity, for example—and it's tough to avoid exposure to such drugs altogether, due to their use in animal feed and their consequent presence in many foods and in the water supply. If these chemicals are contributing to the food allergy epidemic, protecting ourselves will require action from farmers, doctors, manufacturers, and policymakers.
My family's experience illustrates the limits of healthy lifestyle choices in mitigating allergy risk. My daughter and son were born without C-sections; both were breastfed as well, receiving maximum microbial seeding from their mother. As a family, we eat exemplary diets, and no one could describe our home as excessively clean. Yet one child can't taste nuts, sesame, or buckwheat without becoming dangerously ill. "You can do everything right and still have allergies," says Ian A. Myles, a staff clinician at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "You can do everything wrong and not have allergies. The two groups overlap."
The Latest Science Shows Promise
But while preventing all food allergies is clearly unrealistic, researchers are making remarkable progress in developing better treatments—therapies that, instead of combating symptoms after they've started (like epinephrine or antihistamines), aim to make patients less sensitive to allergens in the first place. One promising approach is oral immunotherapy (OIT), in which patients consume small but slowly increasing amounts of an allergen, gradually reducing their sensitivity. A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that an experimental OIT called AR101, consisting of a standardized peanut powder mixed into food, enabled 67 percent of participants to tolerate a dose equivalent to two peanut kernels—a potential lifesaver if they were accidentally exposed to the real thing.
Because OIT itself can trigger troublesome reactions in some patients, however, it's not for everyone. Another experimental treatment, sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) uses an allergen solution or dissolving tablet placed beneath the tongue; although its results are less robust than OIT's, it seems to generate milder side effects. Epicutaneous immunotherapy (EPIT) avoids the mouth entirely, using a technology similar to a nicotine patch to deliver allergens through the skin. Researchers are also exploring the use of medications known as biologics, aiming to speed up the action of immunotherapies by suppressing IgE or targeting other immune-system molecules.
These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies.
One downside of the immunotherapy approach is that in most cases the allergen must be taken indefinitely to maintain desensitization. To provide a potentially permanent fix, scientists are working on vaccines that use DNA or peptides (protein fragments) from allergens to reset patients' immune systems.
Nagler is attacking the problem from a different angle—one that starts with the microbiome. In a recent study, a follow-up to her peanut-allergy investigation, she and her colleagues found that Clostridia bacteria protect mice against milk allergy as well; they also identified a particular species responsible, known as Anaerostipes caccae. The bugs, the team determined, produce a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, which modulates many immune activities crucial to maintaining a well-sealed gut.
These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies. Nagler has launched a company, ClostraBio, to develop biotherapeutics based on this notion; she expects its first product, using synthetic butyrate, to be ready for clinical trials within the next two years.
My daughter could well be a candidate for such a medication. Sam, now 15, is a vibrant, resilient kid who handles her allergies with confidence and humor. Thanks to vigilance and luck (on her part as well as her parents'), she hasn't had another food-related ER visit in more than a decade; she's never had to use her Epi-Pen. Still, she says, she would welcome the arrival of a pill that could reduce the danger. "I've learned how to watch out for myself," she says. "But it would be nice not to have to be so careful."
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."