Thanks to medical study, Baylor freshman no longer has deadly peanut allergy

Barrington, Ill., freshman Stirling Cope lessens his peanut allergy by building up a tolerance. Grace Everett | Photographer

By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer

Growing up, Barrington, Ill., freshman Stirling Cope had to live under strict conditions. He and his family had to constantly be vigilant against any possible exposure to peanuts due to his deadly allergy to them.

This meant everything he came into contact with had to be checked, he had to sit alone at a peanut-free table for lunch and everything had to be wiped down and cleaned before he touched it. He rarely saw his friends, he could hardly go to restaurants and he couldn’t even eat ice cream.

Stirling’s first major reaction happened when he nibbled on a peanut butter cracker at 14 months old. Doctors later determined that he was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and sesame seeds. Stirling said he was too allergic to even be tested, as he could be sent to the hospital in anaphylactic shock with exposure to just 1/4000th of a peanut — practically dust particles.

“It was off the charts,” Stirling said. “I had a really severe case. It was life-threatening. My peanut allergy was so severe that no doctors would actually be willing to skin test me for peanut allergy because just putting it on my skin would cause a reaction.”

One reaction occurred when Stirling high-fived a classmate who had eaten peanut butter two hours before. Twenty minutes later, he was in an ambulance headed to the hospital. Another happened at a hotel in Spain when a bartender forgot to tell his shift change to wash his hands and not touch peanuts while handling Stirling’s drinks. The new bartender filled a bowl of peanuts before putting a straw in his fruit juice, and the miscommunication sent Stirling to the hospital for two days.

“Everything was a risk,” Stirling said. “It was honestly scary eating out at restaurants or going to friends’ houses. I could never stay for dinner. I couldn’t try new things at a restaurant. You never really know if you can trust the people that are serving you or the cooks in the kitchen. When they say, ‘Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,’ I say, ‘Well, I could die, this is serious.’”

Sherry Cope, Stirling’s mother, said she and her family were constantly worried about Stirling being exposed to peanuts. She said this constant vigilance was daunting and extremely stressful.

“He didn’t go to birthday parties, sleepovers or social events,” Sherry said. “Movie theaters were very dangerous. He couldn’t go to a library because other children would check out books and go home and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while they’re reading.”

Sherry said Stirling’s elementary school even completely banned peanuts in an effort to keep him safe. While she said his middle school did permit students to bring peanuts, no nuts were served by the school at lunch.

When Stirling was in fifth grade, he learned about a research study being done in Chicago called the Peanut Reactivity Reduced by Oral Tolerance in an Anti-IgE Clinical Trial (PRROTECT) study. The study took several children with extreme peanut allergies and aimed to reduce the severity of the children’s allergies by giving them increased doses of peanuts, hopefully increasing their tolerance to peanuts over time.

Stirling’s allergy was so severe, researchers even made an exception for him to enter the study. The study was already full when he and his family first heard of it, but after his mother called the researchers every day for a month, they brought him in for testing and realized that the severity of his allergy made him a perfect subject for the study.

“I was very determined,” Sherry said. “They only chose nine children. I called every day, spoke to everyone I could, begged for them to at least interview him and do tests on him because he was so severely allergic.”

Researchers determined the minimum amount of peanut exposure it would take to cause a full-blown reaction, then gave Stirling a steroid called Xolair, which was supposed to boost his immune system. After a year on Xolair, Stirling was exposed to his benchmark dosage and didn’t have a reaction.

Now, the study could begin.

“The first time I willingly ate the peanuts for the study was one of the scariest things,” Stirling said. “I was just sitting there in a room with five doctors standing around me. I was hooked up to all these IVs. It really feels like being a test subject. You’re expecting something bad to happen. I’ve been told not to do this my entire life — like jumping off a bridge — and someone just tells you to do it. You know they’re going to be ready to help you, but you will have something bad happen.”

Each week, Stirling’s peanut dose increased slowly. Eventually, his dose began increasing twice a week. After spending four years in the study, Stirling made his way up to being able to tolerate eating 17 peanuts without having a reaction — the same dose he now takes every day.

Based on the research done in the study, peanut immunotherapy is now given as a treatment for people with severe peanut allergies.

With his now increased tolerance to peanuts, Stirling no longer has to worry about accidental exposure to peanuts. While he still has the allergy, it is now much less severe and no longer life-threatening. Stirling said if he were accidentally exposed to peanuts today, nothing would happen.

Stirling said the study completely changed his life.

“I didn’t really know what it meant to be free until after the study,” Stirling said. “I’m still careful, but I can eat at so many different places. I’d never really had fast food before. The first time I ever had ice cream, I was 13 because it’s made usually in a factory with nuts.”

Every day, Stirling eats 17 peanuts in order to maintain his tolerance. While Stirling said he hates the taste of peanuts, it’s just something he has to do. If he doesn’t take his daily peanut dose, he risks his tolerance resetting, bringing all the fear and precautions back. Thanks to the study, Stirling no longer has to worry about constantly cleaning, he doesn’t have to leave the room while someone is eating peanuts and he is able to live a normal life.

“If it wasn’t for my study, I’d probably be living with my mom right now,” Stirling said. “I don’t know how college would have worked for me. I wouldn’t be able to hang out with people. I wouldn’t be able to go to the dining halls. I feel more like a regular person. I’m able to do things. I can travel. I can hang out with people. I can do whatever I want now without living in fear.”