Dr. Kari Nadeau Speaks with SAFE + FAIR
Dr. Kari Nadeau is one of the world’s leading researchers on allergies and asthma. She recently took the time to speak with SAFE + FAIR about her background, the growth of food allergies, and the things that drive her in her work.
How did you first become interested in the problem of food allergies?
I had bad asthma when I grew up. I was very little, and the thought of not being able to breathe was very disarming and alarming. You never forget it.
Later, when I was a fellow training in asthma and allergy, I was unfortunately called to the bedside of a child who had passed away in the hospital due to a milk allergy. I still remember when his dad held up the epinephrine, asking “Why didn’t this work?” This moment was my catalyst for working to improve the lives of others with food allergy. As a parent, as a pediatrician, as a researcher, I had been given all the tools, so I made it the focus of my research, and I have reached out to other people who did this research for help. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the foundation of many scientists and physicians and families around the world.
What has happened in our food, our environment, and our biology to cause food allergies to increase so greatly?
There is certainly a multi-factorial reason for this growth, and it varies by geography. For example, in Australia, they have the highest rate of food allergies at about 1 in 8 children. The United States is about 1 in 12.5 children.
In looking at causes, we refer to the 7 ‘Ds’ thanks to the research of many teams:
- Vitamin D – something that is perhaps lacking in some of our diets and our lives.
- Dry skin and eczema. Moist skin is very important, especially for babies.
- Detergents – when we clean our clothes, our hands, etc., we are often cleaning away helpful microbiota that builds our immune system and adding chemicals that could damage our skin.
- Having a dog around in the first year of life has been shown to lower the risk of having food allergies.
- DNA – there is definitely some genetic link to food allergies in some families but not all.
- Dirt - if you have the right ‘dirt’ (i.e., microbiota), you may potentially decrease the risk of food allergies. This is why kids who grow up on farms might have fewer food allergies.
- Diversity – diversify your diet early and often. We need to ‘educate our immune system and our guts,’ starting in infancy, with different types of foods.
However, this might not be helpful to people who already have food allergies. You can’t suddenly change these factors and be cured. You have to be super-careful about what you eat when you have food allergies.
What is the most exciting allergy study that you are currently working on?
There are a lot of exciting studies. One is on prevention. I’m excited to work with the National Institutes of Health and other top allergists around the world on this problem. Some people we can prevent, others we can’t—it’s based on blood and biomarkers.
We’re also studying many different biologics, including vaccines, that can be used to treat people with food allergies.
Importantly, we need to help those children and families who have multiple food allergies, as they’re very restricted in what they can eat.
What advice would you give today to a parent who has just discovered that his or her child has a food allergy?
Look at places on the web that have trained physicians or licensed organizations who are promoting the use of helpful, evidence-based guidelines for families and parents. Make sure that they are reputable sources. There are a lot of people who follow their parents or cultures, which may have worked in the past, but nowadays you have to follow the valid evidence to be able to manage food allergies.
Unfortunately, now the chances of allergy are so high, we need to take extreme measures. We need to be compassionate toward people who have these diseases. We need to empathize and help people cope with these diseases. We all need to be educated citizens and consumers.
Do you believe people will ever be “cured” of food allergies? Will we someday be able to take a pill or get a shot and be safe from the symptoms of food allergies?
Yes, I think it’s possible, but we are not there yet. There is hope and promise. Many researchers are working on it with the NIH, a number of companies, and regulatory agencies like the FDA. The question is how we’re going to get there and how quickly. It is a reality for some people that drug therapy can last for a long time. For others it doesn’t, and those are the ones we have to focus on. Compared to where we were 15 years ago when I started in the field, we are light years ahead, but we have a way to go.
What excites you the most about this field of research?
To me, it’s exciting that we can apply innovative science and compassionate care to help others with food allergy. As a scientist, I enjoy working out puzzles—how we can treat it, how we can make things better for people. On the compassion front, we hear stories from people whose lives are getting better so that they don’t have to live in fear of eating.
I also think what you’re doing at SAFE + FAIR is great. It’s exciting thing for me to think about companies like yours who are looking at food allergy from a compassionate perspective and having fun and providing options for food-allergic consumers.