The potential for developing a peanut allergy may be part of our genetic heritage.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have identified an area of the human genome associated with peanut allergies. Knowing this area of susceptibility may lead to early risk assessment of this condition.

However, not everyone with this genetic marker for a peanut allergy develops symptoms. There seems to be other molecular processes affecting whether a genetically predisposed person becomes allergic to peanuts.

Those Sneaky Methyls

Scientists suspect that epigenetic changes may be at play in determining allergy development. Epigenetics is the study of how environmental influences can alter the expression of our genes.

Epigenetic changes occur when chemical groups called “methyls” attach themselves to DNA. The methyls do not alter genetic codes but they change the way genes influence our body.

The researchers suspect that methyls attached to DNA in the genome area associated with peanut allergies can trigger allergy development.

Methyls are created by environmental influences. Their clinging ways are subject to change through shifting environmental exposures and are potentially reversible. If scientists can identify the environmental factors related to methylation in allergy-prone individuals, prevention and new treatments are possible.

Zeroing in on Answers

The John Hopkins research is the first genome-wide study to find a specific genetic link for peanut allergy development.

To zero in on the genetic region related to a peanut allergy, scientists analyzed the DNA samples of 1,315 children plus 1,444 of their biological parents. They scanned about one million genetic markers to pinpoint the area.

“Hopefully, one day, we can manage or prevent food allergies in a safe, simple, effective way,” said researcher Xiaobin Wang, M.D. “We might be able to use pharmaceutical treatment, but if we can figure out whether a lifestyle, nutrition, or environmental change could reduce allergies, that would be even better.”

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