An estimated 1.5 to 2 million children in the United States have a peanut allergy that results in potentially life-threatening reactions and symptoms such as itchy skin, hives, digestive problems, impaired breathing and shock.
Agricultural Research Service scientist Soheila Maleki has made it her life’s work to reduce the adverse health consequences of peanut and tree nut allergies, engaging in wide-ranging research that uncovered flaws in testing procedures and that showed common peanut-processing methods contribute to allergic reactions.
Her work has prompted changes in medical tests, different ways of processing peanuts and new guidance for the public. Her scientific findings now are being used to develop a low-allergy peanut and the first medication to help prevent serious allergic reactions.
“Before Soheila, if people had a peanut allergy, they just had to deal with it,” said Agricultural Research Service Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young. “She had challenges with funding levels for her research and people questioning her hypothesis, but as a result of her persistence, we have a new way of managing an issue that has been life-changing for so many people.”
One of Maleki’s most important discoveries showed that processing peanuts through roasting increased their allergenic properties. In another study, Maleki and colleagues showed that treating peanuts with both heat and high pressure significantly reduced allergic reactions. As a result of her work, many food manufacturers have changed their processes to reduce the likelihood their products will cause harm.
Maleki assessed the reliability of standard peanut allergy tests, finding they often missed the mark. Although people generally eat peanuts and other foods that have been heat-treated or processed, the extracts used to diagnose peanut and food allergies are made from raw peanuts and ingredients, making the tests less reliable.
Maleki also contributed to a study demonstrating that if children are given peanuts when they are very young, they will be 80 percent less likely to develop a peanut allergy. This finding was based on a study of young children in Israel who were traditionally fed Bamba, a peanut butter-flavored puffed-corn snack that has 50 percent peanut content. Because of this research, the American Medical Association and other medical groups now advise parents to introduce peanuts into their infants’ diet.
This research was critical. Peanuts are one of the eight most prevalent allergies among children, and only 20 percent of people with peanut allergies outgrow them. This has forced many families to maintain nut-free households, and prompted many schools to ban the childhood staple from their classrooms and cafeteria.
Maleki is now working with colleagues to develop a low-allergy peanut by cross breeding existing types of peanuts in hopes of developing a new variety that lacks the three proteins associated with allergies. She is hopeful these peanuts could help reduce the severity of reactions to peanuts if they’re ingested accidentally.
In addition, Maleki is advising Aimmune Therapeutics, Inc., a company conducting near-final clinical trials for the first drug to fight peanut allergies. She also is working with the company to develop drugs to fight tree nut, egg and milk allergies.
“When Aimmune started, Soheila was the expert in peanut allergies and guided the early research so that Aimmune could put in an application with the Food and Drug Administration for treating humans with peanut allergies,” said Reyna Simon, an Aimmune team leader.
Simon said Soheila has been responsible for “a fundamental shift in knowledge around peanut allergens,” adding that “she is changing medical practice.”
Sevim Erhan, the Agricultural Research Service’s acting associate area director for the Northeast, said Maleki’s research has reached a wide audience. “Soheila has influenced the medical field, the regulators, the producers and the consumers. She is constantly informing and getting the word out,” Erhan said.
Maleki has been concerned about our nation’s children and the effect of peanut allergies since her early days as a Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She worked at one of the foremost peanut allergy labs at Children’s Hospital in Little Rock and has not looked back.
“As a public servant, she has made a conscious choice to do this work for the good of the American people and people around the world,” Jacobs-Young said. “She also has enlisted a generation who will come behind her who will have that same perspective on the importance of public research.”