THE first effective treatment for potentially lethal food allergies could be on the market within a decade, according to an expert.
Currently people who experience severe reactions to food such as peanuts and dairy products simply have to avoid them.
However, researchers have found a way of reproducing the substance that causes the allergy, so its potency can be reduced.
This means it can be used as a "hypoallergenic vaccine" to reduce the overreaction by the body's immune system, which can kill. The same techniques could also be used against hay fever and allergic asthma.
At the same time, scientists are looking to extract a compound in unpasteurised milk that appears to stop people from getting allergies in the first place.
Farming families in Bavaria who grow up drinking unpasteurised milk are up to ten times less likely to develop allergies than the general population. Probiotics involving lactic acid, found in milk, are also being investigated.
Dr Ronald van Vee, of Amsterdam University, told the British Association Festival of Science yesterday that the basics of the vaccine-type therapy were already there but it had to go through testing to ensure it was safe and truly effective.
"For food allergy, the only treatment is avoidance and rescue medication if you weren't successful in avoiding the food you are allergic to," he said.
"But if we can develop this therapy that will cure the disease and we are close to something that can prevent it as well.
"I'm convinced this therapy will come within ten years. The peanut is one of the allergies for which I think this will come pretty soon," Dr van Vee said.
An ordinary vaccine cannot be made from peanuts as the reaction would be too strong and each time patients were treated they would need adrenalin and other drugs to recover.
Other vaccines among the first to be developed would be for the most common food allergies, such as those involving hazelnuts, walnuts, shrimp and possibly milk and eggs.
The vaccine approach could be combined with an attempt to use naturally occurring bacteria which help our body's immune system to regulate itself.
There is a theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, that the rise in allergies can be attributed to standards of cleanliness which kill off these friendly bacteria as well as the bad ones.
"There is a real strong effect of unpasteurised milk, it is a factor of nine or ten. The people who have discovered this are looking at which microbial product in the milk causes the protective effect," Dr van Vee said.
"If we can find that, and I think we are close, then we can design protective [drugs]."
He added there was also a study getting under way in London to look at the effect of exposing children under the age of one, who have relatives with peanut allergy, to see if this can prevent the disease emerging.
Several large companies are also carrying out research on probiotic bacteria supplements to see whether they can help.
Dr van Vee said his own research was on apples.
"There is a hypoallergenic molecule of the major allergen in apple that's been tested on skin and orally and proven to have a ten-fold reduction in allergy," he said.
Dr Clare Mills, of the UK's Institute of Food Research, said there were not enough specialised allergy clinics in Britain and none in Scotland, which had led many people to misunderstand the issues and also to a high rate of self-diagnosis.
About 30 per cent of people believe they have an allergy, whereas the true figure is about 1-2 per cent of adults and 5-7 per cent of children.