Peanuts are a common cause of anaphylactic shock in children
Scientists have made a breakthrough which could reduce the risk of children suffering serious allergic reactions to peanuts and other food.
A team of Glasgow University researchers identified a molecule which amplifies allergic reactions.
They have also developed a biological agent which they believe will reduce the symptoms.
It is hoped the discovery could lead to a huge reduction in the number of fatal anaphylactic shock cases.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can lead to cardiac arrest and death.
Common causes include foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish, shellfish, dairy products and eggs.
Non-food causes include wasp or bee stings, rubber, penicillin and other drugs or injections.
Led by Dr Alirio Melendez and Prof Eddy Liew, the team found that the novel cytokine (immune hormone) - IL-33 - plays a key role in the development of anaphylaxis.
Dr Melendez said: "We looked at a number of patients who had experienced anaphylaxis during surgery and found that they had very high levels of the molecule IL-33.
"IL-33 is a relatively new discovery and its part in anaphylaxis, or any pathology, has not been greatly understood.
"Our study showed that IL-33 plays a pivotal role in hugely increasing the inflammation experienced during a period of anaphylactic shock and led us to understand how to intervene to reduce its impact."
An anaphylactic shock prompts a massive inflammatory reaction which often is so severe that it constricts breathing.
In their study, the team found that the severity of the shock is linked to the IL-33 molecule, which acts as an amplifier to the inflammatory reaction.
This can lead to a fatal constriction of the airway and, ultimately, death.
"Our study suggests that patients with the most severe anaphylactic reactions have very high levels of IL-33 in their system," Dr Melendez added.
"In basic terms, without the IL-33 molecule, the allergic reaction experienced would be far less severe, greatly reducing the risk of death."
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Association of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) journal.
The team successfully used a mouse model to show that blocking the IL-33 molecule reduces the severity of the attack.
Dr Melendez said the team was now further studying the role of IL-33 in anaphylaxis and similar disorders, and planned to further these studies on food, venoms and drugs-mediated anaphylaxis.
The research team is based at the university's Biomedical Research Centre.
Acute food allergy is thought to affect 500,000 people in the UK, and is most common in children.
Children are very likely to outgrow an allergy to milk, eggs, soy or wheat, but allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish or fish are less frequently outgrown.
International comparisons show that the UK population has the highest prevalence of allergy in Europe and ranks among the highest in the world.