Local Couple Supports Breakthrough Food Allergy Research with Golf Tournament

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Imagine living with the constant fear that your child may unknowingly eat something that contains a given food, even just a trace of it, to which he is severely allergic. Within minutes the adverse reaction takes hold: the child’s throat swells, making it difficult to breathe. If emergency assistance is not delivered immediately, the situation can quickly become life-threatening.

These angst-producing circumstances are becoming increasingly common. Nearly 6 million, or 8 percent of children, live with food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education Network. And the numbers are rising. Between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of peanut allergy among children appears to have tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Olga and Charles Paterakis know all too well the gut-wrenching fear induced by childhood food allergies.

Their 15-year-old son Evan was born with six food allergies—to egg, dairy, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts. He has outgrown some on his own. He is still severely allergic to shellfish, as the family discovered when Evan, just a few months ago, ordered fish at a Florida restaurant that was unknowingly brushed with a sauce containing shellfish, despite the family’s explicit communication with the waiter when ordering. Severe vomiting and an anaphylactic reaction followed, requiring a rush to the nearest ER despite his use of an Epi-pen (a device that looks like a giant needle and delivers a dose of epinephrine to combat an acute allergic reaction).

Then there’s Evan’s dairy allergy.

Thanks to the Paterakis’ pediatrician and allergist, Robert Wood, M.D., Evan can now freely eat food containing dairy products. “His confidence skyrocketed after he knew he could eat pizza at birthday parties, cake if he wanted,” Olga Paterakis said.

Under the direct supervision of Wood, an internationally recognized expert in food allergies and director of Allergy & Immunology at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Evan over several months’ time grew tolerant of dairy products. At the age of 13, he was able to eat his first slice of pizza.

Wood is a pioneer in food allergy research. His work focuses primarily on an approach called oral immunotherapy, a seemingly counter-intuitive treatment in which patients are introduced (in a research setting) to increasingly higher doses of the very food to which they’re allergic. While the approach is still considered experimental, it has shown promise in many food allergy sufferers. And, as Wood explains, it’s actually not that different from an age-old approach to allergies.

“It’s the same thing that’s been done for over 100 years with allergy shots—gradually exposing someone to whatever they’re allergic to. For dust, cats, and things, it’s well known that you could build up tolerance by exposing patients over time. But the reactions were far too severe when we attempted to do this [exposure via needle injection] with food,” Wood said.

To date, oral immunotherapy has been applied in studies of children with allergies to milk, egg, and peanuts. Wood says that about 500 patients worldwide have been treated using this method. While about 25 percent of patients who’ve participated in such studies appear to be cured, most of the others are far more tolerant to the food to which they were allergic originally.

“We’re hoping that as things get worked out, over the next four to five years, we’ll do larger studies with bigger numbers of patients,” Wood said. He foresees that, in about a decade, an effective treatment will be available to all children with food allergies—not just those in controlled studies. But before that happens, costly research involving much larger study populations and research personnel will need to take place.

That’s where support such as that shown by the Paterakis family comes into play. Thrilled with Wood’s ability to help their son and aware of the broader significance of his food allergy research, the Paterakis’ looked for a way to give back. When they were invited to serve on a Johns Hopkins advisory board, the couple learned how they could help—by raising funds for Wood’s research. “We decided that it was the perfect fit for us. We would be able to help Dr. Wood and we would also be giving back for his ‘gift’ to us,” Olga Paterakis said.

This Friday, May 10, 2013, the Paterakis’ will hold their 3rd Annual Charity Golf Tournament to benefit Dr. Robert Wood’s Food Allergy Research at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go directly to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Anyone can register for the tournament or donate to the cause at http://foodallergyresearchgolf.com/

Cumulatively, the past two tournaments have raised over a quarter of a million dollars for Wood’s food allergy research. “It’s hugely significant,” said Wood of the financial support derived from efforts such as this golf tournament. “While the majority of funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, we’ve been very lucky to be in a number of studies because of money raised through funding from philanthropy,” he added.

The ‘lucky feeling’ Wood describes is mutual. “We really believe in his work. I’ve seen how many people have been changed by his research,” Olga Paterakis said. “For us, it’s heartfelt.”

To register for the Charity Golf Classic on May 10, 2013, donate to the cause, or simply learn more about food allergies and Robert Wood’s research, log onto: http://foodallergyresearchgolf.com/




Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.

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