As director of the UNC Food Allergy Initiative and medical director of the UNC Allergy & Immunology Clinic, Dr. Edwin Kim treats children and adults living with a range of food allergies, and it is this hands-on work that informs his cutting-edge research. Dr. Kim has been director of the UNC Food Allergy Initiative since 2015.
Dr. Kim’s food allergy research is personal, as two of his three children have anaphylactic food allergies. He recalls the moment when he learned his 9 month old son was allergic to peanuts. Once he knew his son would recover from the reaction, his mind raced with thoughts about what this allergy would mean in day-to-day life. How would they know which restaurants would be safe? Could they ever send their son to a birthday party unsupervised? What about Halloween? Although the physical impact of food allergic reactions is thankfully infrequent for most, the social impact of living with food allergies remains constant, as the vigilance needed to keep kids safe can lead to feelings of isolation, put kids at risk of bullying, and lead to an overall reduced quality of life.
Peanut allergies have been on the rise for many years. Recent research findings suggest that early introduction of peanuts can slow the rate of peanut allergy; however, even if preventive measures eventually worked, it unfortunately wouldn’t help the millions currently living with peanut allergies who will likely have it for life. It is this immense need that has led Dr. Kim and his team to focus on treatments. They are exploring treatment of peanut allergy through both oral immunotherapy (OIT) and sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). OIT involves a patient consuming small amounts of peanut flour, and SLIT has patients hold a liquid peanut solution under their tongue. Both treatments target the immune system to increase the amount of peanut a person can ingest before having an allergic reaction.
It is Dr. Kim’s hope that treatments like OIT and SLIT can protect against allergic reactions and give some reassurance to those suffering from food allergies. He sees the treatments as an opportunity to provide a sense of normalcy to people, particularly children, living with allergies.
“If we can find a treatment that can let kids go to a sleepover, or eat birthday cake, or go trick-or-treating without worrying, just like the other kids, that would be a huge victory,” he says. “OIT and SLIT brings us one step closer to making this a reality.”
Dr. Kim sees philanthropic investments as critical to bringing these type of novel treatments for peanut and other food allergies out of the lab and to patients.
“Today it is harder and harder to get federal funding for clinical research and because of that, researchers may be less willing to take chances,” Dr. Kim says. “Philanthropic gifts, such as those from the Meade family and the Wallace Foundation, allow researchers to think outside the box and to do the innovative new studies that can hopefully lead to the next big thing in food allergy. On the back end, these gifts can also support studies that answer the practical real-life questions that can sometimes be missed in the larger formal studies.”
Looking forward, Dr. Kim sees “boundless” opportunities for developing food allergy treatments including treatments targeting multiple allergies at the same time, and treatments for additional food allergies, such as shellfish and alpha-gal red meat allergy, that have largely been ignored so far. Philanthropic investments have the potential to turn these opportunities into tangible, life-changing treatments that can change the landscape for those living with food allergies.
When Dr. Kim first started working in the field in 2008, all he could say was, “maybe someday we’ll be able to bring these treatments to our patients.” He finds it almost unbelievable that “someday” may finally be here.
For more information on how to support Dr. Kim and food allergy research at UNC, please contact: