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Encouraging news for food allergy sufferers

"Oral immunotherapy" is confronting allergy dangers head-on, and it's part of a clinical trial at Stanford University
Experimental food allergy therapy gives new hope to sufferers 04:46

Every three minutes in the U.S. someone visits an emergency room with a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to food, but now top researchers are exploring a promising experimental treatment.

One doctor is using a revolutionary approach to combat the deadly threat, and she has success stories to prove its effectiveness, reports CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips.

For most of 11-year-old Lindsay Ehrenpreis' life, food has been a source of fear. The most microscopic exposure to many types of nuts could cause her to have a near-fatal allergic reaction.

"Every speck of nut, not just what she would eat, but the cross contamination of dishes and pots and pans in other peoples kitchens, were her cyanide," her father said.

But that is changing. For the last eight months, Lindsay has been receiving an experimental treatment called oral immunotherapy. It's part of a clinical trial at Stanford University, led by immunologist and researcher Dr. Kari Nadeau. Bit by bit her body is being trained to no longer react to foods she's allergic to -- a process called desensitization.

"What we do is to try to take away people's allergies and try to do it permanently," Nadeau said. "In order to do that though you have to give someone back the same food that they're allergic to."

At the start of the treatment, Nadeau and her team give most patients a series of injections to lower the body's immune response. Several weeks later, they start eating just a few grains of the foods they are allergic to and over the course of about six months to a year that amount is steadily increased.

"I was nervous, but the thing was, I saw how tiny the flakes were and I literally said 'one, two, three and I ate it,'" Lindsay said.

Now, she can eat 60 nuts in one day without having a reaction.

Food allergies are on the rise, doubling approximately every 10 years. One in 13 American children are affected and 25 percent of will have a severe reaction called anaphylaxis.

Nicholas Pierorazio, 17, completed the study in 2013. At 9 months old, his first taste of macaroni and cheese landed him in the E.R.

"You could not even kiss him after you ate a piece of cheese. His entire face would blow up," his mother Cathy said.

Before treatment, she was in a constant state of panic.

"It's like an alarm; it felt like it never went off. And then after Kari, I feel like, not that the bells stopped ringing, it's just quiet," Pierorazio said.

Now Nicholas takes a daily maintenance dose of foods he used to be allergic to, in the form of a cookie.

"I know it changed his life," Pierorazio said.

The treatment is not without risk. Some patients have experienced abdominal pain, skin rashes and tingling in the mouth and throat and Nadeau isn't calling this a cure just yet.

"When I think about the word cure I think cure is for life and right now we haven't tested anyone for their full lifetime," she said. "What I've seen is how heroic -- how much I admire these people for being able to face these fears and say, but I know at the end of this I'm going to be able to eat and eat without fear."

Nadeau has treated more than 700 patients and over 300 are currently in clinical trials. While the therapy has been overwhelmingly successful, it can only be done in a monitored hospital setting. This is not something people can try at home.

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