Could a dietary fiber supplement provide the long-awaited treatment for people with food allergies?

  • Food
  • July 10, 2024

A study from the University of Michigan has found that inulin, a natural plant fiber commonly used as a dietary supplement, a prebiotic in soft drinks, a sweetener substitute, and for other products and purposes, may be a potential new treatment for food allergies.

In what appears to be a major advance that offers the promise of relief to people with food allergies around the world, the paper was published in Natural materials describes the success of oral immunotherapy based on inulin gel in stopping allergic reactions in mice by, in part, targeting bacteria in the gut. The gel prevented severe allergic reactions during and even after administration, including reactions to common triggers such as peanuts, egg whites, and milk.

The research, conducted by an international team of scientists from pharmaceutical sciences, biomedical and chemical engineering, internal medicine and other specialties, suggests that inulin gel addresses the cause of food allergies rather than just treating the symptoms.

The research was led by James Moon of U-M's College of Pharmacy, who has spent years studying inulin's potential to treat disease. He said inulin gel-based therapy shows promise because of its safety profile and potential for large-scale production.

“Inulin, a widely used dietary fiber recognized as safe by the FDA, forms the basis of the gel, making it a viable and translatable option for clinical use,” said Moon, whose lab develops drug delivery technologies in conjunction with pharmaceuticals and engineering to identify ways the body can fight disease. Moon is the J.G. Searle Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

While more research and clinical trials are needed to test the findings, the study, which highlighted the role of the small intestinal microbiota and metabolites in regulating food allergy, opens up potentially life-changing new avenues for therapeutic interventions, he said. Other, newer treatment options have seen low uptake due to side effects and spotty effectiveness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 1 in 3 adults and more than 1 in 4 children have a food allergy. This life-altering condition is becoming increasingly difficult to treat, as allergens can lurk in many foods and drinks.

Food allergies have become a major problem worldwide, especially in developed countries, as unintentional exposure to allergens can cause serious reactions, even death.

The study found that inulin gel specifically formulated with an allergen normalized the imbalanced gut microbiota and metabolites in allergic mice. This normalization led to the establishment of allergen-specific oral tolerance, effectively suppressing allergic reactions to various food allergens.

“The therapy provided long-lasting protection even after treatment was stopped, indicating that there may be lasting relief from food allergies,” said Fang Xie, a doctoral student who also led the studies.

Inulins are a group of polysaccharides and natural storage carbohydrates found in over 36,000 plant species, including wheat, onions, asparagus, and chicory. They are most commonly used in the production of supplements.

The fiber is also the subject of research and clinical trials investigating or better understanding its role in the treatment of cancerous tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes and other diseases.

The researchers whose work was included in the study represent institutions around the world, including the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dongguk University, Seoul, Republic of Korea; Michigan State University, the University of Washington; and WPI Immunology Frontier Research Center, Osaka University, Japan. Additionally, researchers from the University of Michigan represent the Biointerfaces Institute, the Departments of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Internal Medicine; and the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center.

Disclaimer: Moon declares a financial interest through board membership, as a paid consultant, for research funding, and/or as a shareholder in EVOQ Therapeutics and Saros Therapeutics, and UM has a financial interest in EVOQ Therapeutics, Inc. The other authors declare no competing interests.

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