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Original Article


Human Basophils: A Unique Biological Instrument to Detect the Allergenicity of Food


V Sabato,1,2 AJ van Hengel,3 KJ De Knop,1 MM Verweij,1 MM Hagendorens,4 CH Bridts,1 LS De Clerck,1 D Schiavino,2 WJ Stevens,1 DG Ebo1

1Faculty of Medicine, Department of Immunology, Allergology, Rheumatology, University of Antwerp, Antwerpen, Belgium
2Faculty of Medicine, Department of Allergology, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Rome, Italy
3European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements, Geel, Belgium
4Faculty of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, University Hospital Antwerp, University of Antwerp, Belgium

J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol 2011; Vol. 21(3): 179-184



Background: Labeling of major food allergens is mandatory for the safety of allergic consumers. Although enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, polymerase chain reaction, and mass spectrometry are sensitive and specific instruments to detect trace amounts of food proteins, they cannot measure the ability of food constituents to trigger activation of mast cells or basophils.

Aim: We evaluated the basophil activation test as an instrument to determine the allergenic potential of trace amounts of food allergens in complex matrices. Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) allergy was selected as a proof-of-concept model.

Methods: The study population comprised 5 severely peanut-allergic patients (3 males/2 females; median age, 12 years) all sensitized to 3 major peanut allergens (Ara h 1, Ara h 2, and Ara h 3) and 5 peanut-tolerant individuals (2 males/3 females; median age, 8 years). Basophils from patients and controls were stimulated with pure peanut extract and blank and peanut-spiked (0.1, 0.01, and 0.001 ppm) biscuits (baking time 11, 16, 21, 26 minutes) and chocolate extracts.

Results: Blank biscuits and chocolate did not induce cell activation in patients or controls. A comparison between patients and controls showed significantly higher activation of basophils after stimulation with 0.1 and 0.01 ppm of peanut-spiked biscuit at all baking times and peanut-spiked chocolate (P<.05).

Conclusions: The basophil activation test is a highly sensitive and specific tool to detect traces of functionally active food allergens. For biscuits, its accuracy seems independent of baking time. Furthermore, it allows even the most sensitive patients to be included in study protocols.

Key words: Food allergy. Trace allergens. Food safety. Food labeling. Basophil activation test.