Published: May 5, 2016
Peanut allergies are among the most common allergies in the United States, with three million people reporting allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Peanut allergies tend to persist throughout a person’s life; however, about 20 percent of children will eventually outgrow their allergy. Reactions to peanuts can range from a mild skin irritation or rash to anaphylactic shock, a potentially fatal reaction.
Researchers at Aranex, the biotech company conducting research, are working on removing three of the genes know to contain peanut allergens using CRISPR. They hope that by removing three of the major allergens, they can develop a hypoallergenic peanut that would be safer for people allergic to peanuts. CRISPR is a gene editing tool that researchers can use to specifically delete a sequence in DNA. By deleting the allergen genes, the peanuts will not produce the allergen proteins.
Aranex hopes to produce a hypoallergenic peanut that can substitute for the current peanut plant to reduce the risk of accidental exposure for peanut allergy sufferers. After CRISPR can be shown to successfully eliminate the allergens from the genome, the plant will have to be tested to ensure that the genes are actually silenced and no allergen protein is produced.
The peanut crop is an extremely complex plant, making it difficult to remove all of the genes coding for protein allergens. If all of the allergens were removed, the plant would be left dramatically changed. It is possible that the product would not resemble a peanut or even contain the same nutritional value, as many of the allergens are sources of protein. Additionally, there is a chance that scientists have not identified all the genes that lead to an allergic response. Although it is probably not possible to eliminate all of the genes encoding peanut allergens, even eliminating three genes will reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination.
Once a low-allergen peanut crop is successfully developed, the low-allergen crop will have to be completely segregated from the traditional peanut crop to ensure that the non-allergen crops are not contaminated. Even if two separate fields are used, there are still many concerns. There is a risk that insects may cross-pollinate the two fields. Separate farm equipment must be used and the non-allergen field must not have been used for traditional peanut plants the year prior. Even after the peanuts are harvested, they would still need to remain completely separated to carry a hypoallergenic label. Even if all of this was possible, it is unlikely that the crop industry will want to adapt this new plant because of the relatively high risk and high cost associated with growing and distributing the hypoallergenic plant.
Although CRISPR technology provides hope for a way to combat peanut allergies, CRISPR may not be able to make a completely hypoallergenic peanut, which along with the disinterest of the crop industry may cause this hypoallergenic plant to never be widely available.
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