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Compton family take part in 'life-changing' study with Imperial College London, into peanut allergy

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When eating a piece of birthday cake can lead to A&E, life can be challenging for children and a huge worry for their parents.

So a brother and sister from Compton have been taking part in a research study into nut allergies – in a bid to make life easier for them and other sufferers in the future.

Oscar and Isla Heelan both have a peanut allergy, and initially it was thought their sister Lucy may also have one.

The Heelan family say days out will be easier now that Oscar and Isla have taken part in the research
The Heelan family say days out will be easier now that Oscar and Isla have taken part in the research

So mum Kristy Heelan said she “fired out emails to everyone” as she tried everything she could to make a difference to their lives in the future.

“We just wanted to find something to try to make life easier for them,” she adds. “We were the second phase of the study so when we went we had a little more knowledge. They were able to give us some facts and figures and it was looking really positive. They were learning lots as they were going.

"During the first visit they had to confirm they were all definitely allergic, which was great as it came out that Lucy wasn't allergic at all.”

Mr Heelan said putting her children into the study did “feel like a bit of a step into the unknown”, but said it had all been worth it – despite the initial sickness, rashes, stomach aches and coughing that come with ingesting something you’re allergic to.

The pioneering research is being carried out at Imperial College London, funded by the charity Action Medical Research and the Medical Research Council, and is investigating a new treatment to help reduce life-threatening allergic reactions in children with peanut allergy.

Isla, Oscar and Lucy Heelan (56754827)
Isla, Oscar and Lucy Heelan (56754827)

Travelling into London every two weeks, Oscar and Isla would be given increasing doses of boiled peanuts under very strict medical supervision.

The aim is to desensitise their immune system and reduce the severity of their allergic reaction. And the research has been life changing, as two years after the study began, neither Oscar nor Isla now have to avoid peanuts completely.

In fact they have to eat them every day.

“Oscar reacted to a smaller amount [of peanut] than Isla did but now incredibly they both have six peanut M&Ms a day,” Mrs Heelan added.

“We are in our third year now, what they call a maintenance year.

“There are no drugs involved, it’s all done through eating the thing you are allergic to in very small amounts and in a very controlled environment.

“The benefits have been brilliant. It was a really great team of people and it was a really positive experience, although not a pleasant one.

“Isla has breezed through but Oscar has had a few reactions.

“He has had an up and down journey, but his overall reflection is still that he is glad he’s done it and he would do it again.

“It just opens up everything; it’s honestly just life-changing; for them it’s just massive.”

The treatment is not a cure, but evidence suggests it will reduce the severity of their allergic reaction, which is a relief for Mrs Heelan as she says she now feels confident that her children can deal with a reaction when they are out without her.

“Oscar and Isla have done incredibly well,” she added. “I try to tell them that they are pioneering; it has got so much potential and is very exciting.

“We are just taking it each step at a time.”

Dr Sharanya Nagendran, research fellow at Imperial College London, said: “It is really hard for families and caregivers to make sure that a child with peanut allergy avoids eating peanut, and accidental reactions are common.

“The BOPI-2 study is the first to directly compare conventional oral immunotherapy to hypoallergenic boiled peanut, allowing treated children to lead more normal lives without fear of a severe reaction.”

Sarah Moss, communications director at Action Medical Research, added: “We are committed to funding treatments that improve the health and lives of children.

“As a research charity focusing on children, we understand the importance of ongoing research to find new treatments for people, including children, who live with potentially life threatening peanut allergies.”

More than one hundred young people, between the ages of six and 18, will take part in the study, during which researchers will look for changes in the immune response during and after treatment.

They hope it will lead to new ways to predict who is most likely to benefit from oral immunotherapy.

Hospital admissions for anaphylaxis is on the rise, according to researchers, with peanut allergy the most common cause of anaphylaxis in the UK.

Peanut allergy affects at least one in 50 children across the country.

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