Texas Tech University

Professors Receive $3.3 Million Grant to Develop Peanut Allergy Immunotherapy

Amanda Bowman

October 12, 2018


The treatment will use microneedles to possibly eliminate peanut allergies.

With Halloween candy inundating store shelves all over the nation, schools and day care centers are emphasizing their strict “no peanut products allowed” policies at a fever pitch. According to The Peanut Institute, only 0.6 to 1 percent of people have a peanut allergy, ranging from mild to severe. That may seem like an insignificant percentage, but that means 46-78 million people are affected worldwide.

Three faculty members from Texas Tech University are working toward eliminating peanut allergies through a $3.3 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“The overall goal of this grant is to create an immunotherapy for peanut allergies,” said Harvinder Gill, the Whitacre Endowed Chair of Science and Engineering, an associate professor of chemical engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and the principal investigator on the grant. “Food allergies, including peanut allergies, have no treatment. Other allergies, like respiratory allergies for pollens, can be diminished by getting allergy shots. But if someone has a peanut allergy, they just have to avoid it in their food and, perhaps, carry epinephrine injection with them in case they have a severe allergic reaction.”

Harvinder Gill
Harvinder Gill (right)

Gill has co-founded a company called Moonlight Therapeutics, which has licensed the patents related to use of microneedles for treatment of peanut and other food and respiratory allergies. Moonlight Therapeutics is presently bringing this technology forward for commercialization to make the treatment available for patients.

Gill and Shakya are inventors of the microneedle patch technology used in this study and are entitled to royalties derived from Moonlight Therapeutics from future sale of products. Gill has ownership in Moonlight Therapeutics. These potential conflicts of interest have been disclosed and are being overseen by Texas Tech University.

Gill, who already is using microneedles to help treat dust mite allergens, is working with Brittany Backus, a senior research associate in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources' Department of Animal & Food Sciences, and Akhilesh Shakya, a research assistant professor of chemical engineering, on the project. Two physicians from the Food Allergy Program at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Dr. Carla Davis and Dr. Sara Anvari, also are part of this collaborative team effort to develop a treatment for peanut allergy.

Microneedles are tiny projections precisely engineered and arranged on a small patch the size of a dime. Drug molecules can be coated on the microneedles and then delivered into the top layers of the skin by applying the patch for about five minutes. When microneedles penetrate the skin, the coating dissolve in the moisture of the skin layers.

“We hypothesize that we can coat the peanut allergen on the surfaces of the microneedles and use them to deliver the allergen into the skin,” Gill said. “If peanut allergen is administered through shots, it can cause severe reactions that can even be life threatening. As a result, peanut allergies are not treated with shots. However, if the allergen is delivered into the superficial layers of the skin, the systemic exposure – meaning the uptake of the allergen into the blood circulation – can be minimized because there are no blood vessels in the very top layers of the skin.

“We can optimize the length of the microneedles so that we can reduce the side effects of the therapy as opposed to allergy shots and make peanut allergy treatment using microneedles a safe and viable option.”

Other benefits of using microneedles are that the patch is painless and, after initially being monitored by a doctor, it perhaps can even be self-applied by the patient, making it convenient, Gill said.

If this research proves promising, then Gill hopes to apply it to other food allergens.

“Peanut, egg and milk allergies are all rising,” he said. “If this treatment works for peanut allergies, then I think it's equally likely that very similar microneedle patches for other food allergens, like shellfish, for example, can be made once we have some experience, because no one is actually doing this work. We are the first to propose using microneedles for the treatment of allergies, including respiratory and food allergies.”