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Working for Peanuts

Local UT professor develops possible peanut allergy vaccine.

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Maria Gomes-Solecki - TIM HIGGINS
  • Tim Higgins
  • Maria Gomes-Solecki

Three years ago, a quick snack changed Rebecca Barnett's life.

"I gave my 2-year-old daughter, Tallulah, a bite of peanut butter, and her eyes swelled shut," Barnett remembers.

Tallulah was allergic to peanuts, and these days, the Barnetts must keep all peanuts and peanut-contaminated products out of their home. But a new vaccine developed by Maria Gomes-Solecki may offer hope to people suffering from the dangerous food allergy.

Gomes-Solecki's company, Memphis Biopeptides, developed and patented the vaccine technology, which is now being tested on mice at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis.

"Death from a peanut allergy is rare, but if a food allergy is going to kill you, it'd more likely be a peanut allergy than anything else," says Gomes-Solecki, chief scientific officer at Memphis Biopeptides and an assistant professor of molecular science at UTHSC.

Since testing is in the early stages, Gomes-Solecki doesn't know if the vaccine will allow people with allergies to eat peanuts. But it likely will allow people to eat food that may have been contaminated by peanuts in a manufacturing facility. People with peanut allergies cannot eat anything produced in a facility where peanuts also are processed.

"One can speculate that a vaccine would at the very least allow people not to worry about food contamination with peanuts. Now I don't think that someone who knows they are allergic to peanuts would take the chance of eating peanuts even if they were vaccinated," says Gomes-Solecki, who started a branch of the New York-based Biopeptides Corp. in Memphis in 2007 after her husband accepted a position at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Biopeptides also is researching a vaccine for Lyme disease.

Peanut allergies affect less than 1 percent of the population and tend to develop in children. The allergy causes the body to produce large amounts of histamines when peanuts or peanut products are consumed. Reactions range from vomiting, hives, and abdominal pain to anaphylactic shock. The latter can result in death if not treated quickly.

A year or so after she was diagnosed, Tallulah went into anaphylactic shock after eating a cookie in daycare that contained M&M's, a product produced in a factory that also processes peanut products. Barnett had to rush her daughter to the hospital.

"Their reaction increases every time they eat contaminated food. To say we're vigilant now is an understatement," Barnett says. "We don't eat out a lot, and we don't eat at friends' houses. If I eat nuts at work, I eat them before noon so I don't risk having something stuck in my teeth when I pick her up from school."

Gomes-Solecki says the vaccine is at least eight to 10 years from hitting the market. But Barnett is excited that hope may be on the way.

"I would be very interested in a vaccine, so we wouldn't have to be as vigilant about watching everything that comes into our house," Barnett says. "Tallulah could be like a regular kid."

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