MOBILE Ala. (WALA)- It's a life changing treatment for people with food allergies and doctors are hoping it's on its way to becoming mainstream. Oral Immunotherapy is freeing families of the deadly dangers that food allergies can cause.
Imagine something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich having the power to kill you. That's the reality for millions of people across our country and it was the reality for Matthew Robbins.
"It almost became creating a bubble for Matthew to live in," Sharon Robbins, Matthew's mother said.
Matthew looks like a normal teenager, but he's been living with a life threatening allergy all of his life.
Matthew said, "I don't really remember the first time I had a reaction but I know that if I get reactions now I start getting hives and I start sweating or coughing and sneezing a lot."
Matthew is allergic to peanuts. So much so, just smelling them causes his body to start to shut down. He has to carry around an EpiPen in case he accidentally comes into contact with peanuts.
A nightmare for Matthew's mother, Sharon, who discovered he was allergic after feeding him a peanut butter sandwich when he was two.
Since then, life has been a challenge for the family. Typical things like playing baseball and taking family vacations could be dangerous.
Sharon said, "If we get on a plane, we have to think forward in has somebody else been on that plane that had peanuts. Has anybody touched something he's going to be touching? So we would get on the plane before other passengers with gloves and scrubbing like Wet Ones or disinfecting wipes to scrub the entire area that he would be sitting in, the tray table, his seat and then sit beside him on a plane with an EpiPen and a mask in case someone else ate peanuts around him."
Life changed for the Robbins family not too long ago. One of Matthew's teachers suggested the family try oral immunotherapy or OIT, a fairly new treatment first tested in the early 2000's.
"This is the most rewarding and life-changing of anything I've been involved with in the field of allergy," Dr. Carolyn Comer said.
Dr. Comer has been an allergist for 30 years, but it's only been 2 and a half years since she started her OIT practice at the Alabama Allergy and Asthma Center in Birmingham. The only city offering OIT in Alabama. Dr. Comer is one of two doctors who perform it in Birmingham.
"We start with a tiny, almost microscopic amount of peanut protein and we gradually in a set schedule, over about six months will increase this amount of protein each week as they come to the office. They will come here take the next higher dose. they're in the office for an hour where we monitor vital signs before and after the dose," she said.
That small dose of peanut protein is given to patients once its been dissolved into a liquid, like cran-grape juice, or anything to dilute the taste. Then the amount of peanut protein increases each week, before patients are forced to face their fears and eat a whole peanut.
Matthew said, "Being told you can't be around peanuts all your life and then they're telling you to come in here and do the peanuts it's just, I did not want to do it. At all."
"He's a junior, so when we told him you got to think now about is your mommy coming with you to college...when you throw the word mommy out to the 16-year-old a couple of times, he quickly says where do I sign up for that," Sharon laughed.
Dr. Comer explained eating that tiny amount of peanut, disrupts the cells that go out of control when faced with an allergen and desensitizes the immune system over time.
Dr. Comer said, "It's down regulating. It's kind of turning that switch off so that if it goes off totally, that's a cure. We want to get someone as close to being like someone without allergy as we can."
Don't throw away that EpiPen just yet. OIT is not a cure and it's still something patients will have to treat every day by taking a prescribed dose of whatever food they are allergic to.
But, the treatment has given Matthew a whole new lease on life. He can now be around peanuts in the dugout during his high school baseball games and flying across the country is, now, no problem.
"We took a flight that involved nine different flights and I wasn't always able to sit right beside him and for the first time I thought this is how it is to travel with kids and not have to sit beside them ready to jab them at any moment," Sharon said.
Dr. Comer tells FOX10 Investigates almost half of her patients travel more than an hour and a half to her office. Some come from as far away as New Orleans. Because this treatment is fairly new and there's a risk the patient could have an allergic reaction during treatment, some doctors choose not to practice OIT. But, Dr. Comer said there have been no fatalities due to reactions during treatment.
OIT is also not FDA approved, yet, but Dr. Comer said that could be changing very soon.
Depending on your company, insurance might cover OIT. You will just likely have to travel to get treatment.