Sticking a peanut-soaked patch onto the arm of someone with a deadly allergy sounds like a pretty terrible idea, but it could actually be the key to helping eradicate peanut allergies in some people altogether, if early trials of the "Viaskin Peanut" patch are anything to go by.
The device, which is being developed by DBV Technologies, is around the size of a US quarter (around 2.5 cm across), and it works by constantly exposing patients to small amounts of peanut extract in order to reduce the severity of their allergy.
The trials so far have been so promising that the US's Food and Drug Administration has fast-tracked the patch, and, if all final trials go to plan, it will be on the market by 2018.
And to be honest, it couldn't come soon enough. Research shows that, in the US, the rate of food allergies has increased by 50 percent since the late 1990s, with peanut allergies the most common. Things are becoming so extreme that some patients are now not even able to be in the same room as a peanut without suffering from a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
It's hoped that the Viaskin will help to ease that by very gradually exposing the body's immune system to tiny amounts of peanut extract, and helping it to slowly get used to it.
The device is made up of a plastic ring covered in a flexible membrane that's coasted with peanut extract. This extract sticks to the membrane with electrostatic charge, and when the person wearing it sweats, it's gradually released onto their skin. The patch needs to be reapplied daily.
According to DBV, adults and adolescents will wear the patch on their upper arms, just like a nicotine patch, while children will wear it on their backs.
So far trials have shown that the device is safe for use, and also that it can help alleviate even the most severe peanut allergies.
The most recent trial looked at 221 patients around the US with peanut allergies. The participants were randomly split into four groups and given one of three strengths of Viaskin Peanut or a placebo patch. They used the patches for 12 months and the severity of their allergic reactions was tested both before and after.
The trial has now been extended, but the early results show that those who received the highest doses were able to tolerate 10 times more peanuts by the end of the study than they could before, as Ben Schiller reports for Co.Exist.
Depending on how bad the allergy was when they started, this doesn't necessarily mean they could all be chowing down on peanut butter toast any time soon.
“While we believe that some patients will be completely cured by using the patch, the goal here is not to be able to eat a handful of peanuts but not to risk an acute allergic reaction in case of accidental ingestion of peanut,” DBV Technologies CEO Pierre-Henri Benhamou told Hollie Slade for Forbes.
He also told Schiller that he believes the results could be even better, and the company is now conducting a 36-month trial.
"It will be three years for peanut allergy, but at the end patients will be able to take in every kind of peanut. There will no more need to restrict their diet," he said.
The company is now also creating patches for dust mites and milk, to help people with other types of allergies better live with their condition.