Israeli scientists crack mystery of food allergies

High-frequency sound waves were used by the scientists to pulverize the sesame seed molecules to create an allergy-free product.For the more than 11 million Americans who suffer from food allergies, some news with a tantalizing aroma is emanating from Israel. …

High-frequency sound waves were used by the scientists to pulverize the sesame seed molecules to create an allergy-free product.For the more than 11 million Americans who suffer from food allergies, some news with a tantalizing aroma is emanating from Israel. Scientists from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology have found a way to neutralize a sesame seed protein that causes allergies and they believe the technique can also be used to eliminate allergens in milk, peanuts and other common foods.

High-frequency sound waves were used by the scientists to pulverize the sesame seed molecules to create an allergy-free product. After identifying the allergenic part of the protein, known as an epitope, the Technion scientists targeted it with sound waves, using extremely high frequencies over very short periods. In 95 percent of the cases, the allergic qualities were completely neutralized, they said.

The researchers focused on sesame, a popular staple in Israel which is also gaining fans among health conscious Americans, but the same process could be used on other foods that cause allergic reactions, like milk and peanuts, said Technion professor Shmuel Yanai, who oversaw the research, along with Prof. Yuri Kogan, both of the biotechnology and food engineering faculty.

In the United States, about 200 deaths annually are attributed to reactions to food allergies, and about 30,000 people require emergency treatment each year because of such allergies, according to sponsors of a U.S. bill to require clearer labeling of food products.

“I have a personal involvement in the subject,” Yania told ISRAEL21c. “On my honeymoon many years ago, my wife and I climbed to the top of a flour-grinding windmill on the Greek island of Mykonos. By the time I got to the top, I could harldy breathe, and my wife later told me I became almost blue, and I could feel my windpipe constricting.

“It was clear to me that it was an allergic reaction, and that all around me was pulverized wheat – but if I was allergic to that, how could I have eaten bread and noodles all those years.
The only explanation I could think of at the time, and one that stuck with me ever since, is that once flour is heated past a certain temperature, then possibly the allergic agents found in it are inactivated or even negated. If heat can render an allergenic compound into a non-allergenic one, then why not do it intentionally? That was the question I was left with.”

After identifying the allergenic part of the protein, known as an epitope, Yanai’s Technion team targeted it with sound waves from a device developed at the Technion that creates the waves to break down high-tension electricity between two electrodes. The shock waves use extremely high frequencies over very short periods.

Dr. Naomi Wolf of Technion’s department of food engineering and biotechnology checked the effect of these shock waves on a solution of sesame proteins that contained the main allergen she discovered. In 95 percent of all cases, the allergic activity was completely neutralized.

The team also developed a rat model for allergy. Feeding them sesame seeds caused an allergic reaction in some of them. When they were fed sesame proteins treated with shock waves, those that had been allergic did not have a reaction. The scientists believe the process works by changing the spatial properties of the molecules.

Yanai said that the findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, an official publication of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

The research was initially funded by the European Commission’s Research Directorate General as part of a consortium in which eight groups of scientists from European countries are participating.

“When I heard that the EU was interested in this subject, I returned to those thoughts of years ago from my flour mill experience, and I submitted the research proposal along with the European scientists, ” Yanai said.

Yanai said that now the Technion team – at the EU’s bequest – has has turned its attention to nuts and milk and initial experiments.

“Our preliminary results are promising – we’re also trying other approaches besides shock waves, novel techniques which have not had much use so far,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Wolf said that food allergy is spreading in the Western world due to improved hygiene, which kills pathogens and reduces the functioning of the human immune system, especially in children.

“Sesame seed allergy in Israel is as common as peanut allergy is in Europe and the US,” Wolf told The Jerusalem Post. “Here, the consumption of sesame seeds in its various forms is high, starting with six-month-old infants, because it is a very nutritional protein.”

She aimed her research at identifying the allergy-causing proteins in sesame seeds and trying to neutralize their activity. “Proteins are comprised of a segment composed of amino acids,” Kogan told the Post. Allergy is caused by a small section of amino acids or a combination of them; identifying them is important for developing vaccinations in the future.

Scientists not involved in the research said the findings could have far-reaching implications for food-allergy sufferers, but they also urged caution.

“The work in identifying the epitope was excellent,” professor Ram Reifen, head of Hebrew University’s School of Nutritional Science, told the Associated Press. However, he added, it is not clear what other effects exposure to the high energy waves might have on the protein. “You know it lowers the allergenicity, but you don’t know what else it does,” he said.

Dr. Meir Shalit, head of the allergy unit at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, said it remains to be seen whether the process can be translated into a real product. “The research is still in a very early stage,” he said.