Researchers See Cure for Peanut Allergy: Peanuts

Health: peanut allergy--peanuts over heart rate and caduceus
It's always good to watch what you eat. But there's really no choice for people with peanut allergies. Close to 2 million Americans are allergic to them, some with potentially deadly reactions. That's led more than 4,000 schools to ban peanuts. But that could change as CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

The mere sight of a peanut used to spark fear in 11-year-old J.P. Hainline.

"I was very scared because I knew if I had peanuts I could very well die," Hainline said.

Up to 200 deaths a year are caused by food allergies - most due to peanuts. J.P. Hainline's mother took no chances.

"We had to change where we ate at restaurants," Janie Hainline said. "If we did eat out, we had to speak to the chef."

Even trace amounts must be avoided.

"It takes as little as 1/100th of a peanut to cause a life threatening reaction," said Dr. Wesley Burks of Duke University Medical Center.

But research at Duke is showing the culprit may also be the cure. The experimental treatment, called "oral immunotherapy," uses peanuts to build up tolerance. Starting out with a minute dose of peanut powder -- the equivalent of 1/1000th of a peanut -- study participants eat it with food on a daily basis.

"They build up to a higher dose and that goes on for about 6 to 8 months and then at a certain point their immune system begins to change so that they're no longer having reactions," Burks said.

In one study, 75 percent of children with peanut allergies who ate increasing amounts of peanut protein daily for 3 to 5 years can now eat unlimited amounts of peanuts.

In a separate year-long study,16 children on treatment could tolerate 15 peanuts before developing symptoms - providing a potentially lifesaving buffer of protection.

After participating in the Duke study, J.P. Hainline is no longer deathly allergic to peanuts. For now, a handful of peanut M&M's is his daily medicine.

He can eat peanuts now as much as he wants.

"It's very helpful," Hainline said. "I'm able to go practically anywhere I want."

While the results are encouraging, there are no guarantees the allergy is gone for good.

"We don't know long term if it really will make it go away. And that's where the studies are really concentrated on right now," Burks said.

Although the concept sounds simple enough, experts warn it should not be tried at home. Researchers say this type of therapy goes beyond peanuts: the same approach currently being tested for allergies to milk and, eggs.