Hypoallergenic peanuts and peanut products may hit the grocery stores in the not too distant future.

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Toronto-based Xemerge have signed an exclusive agreement to commercialize a patented process that slashes allergens in peanuts by 98 percent.

While details of the transaction were not disclosed, Louis Judge, director of Technology Transfer at A&T, said, “We own the intellectual property and license it to Xemerge. We don’t share the details of the amounts, but in a typical license, we do like some kind of execution fee as well as a royalty.”

Research funding was provided by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“This is one of the best technologies in the food and nutrition space we have seen,” said Johnny Rodrigues, chief commercialization officer of Xemerge, who confirmed that A&T will get royalties on any products developed with the process. Judge added that the royalties will be shared 50-50 between A&T and the three inventors.

Peanut allergies can be so deadly that many snack products carry warnings if they came from machines also used to process peanuts. Peanuts cause serious allergic reactions in an estimated 0.9% of the U.S. population, about 2.8 million people. Highly sensitive children and adults can develop anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, in as little as a few seconds from ingesting extremely small amounts.

The process was developed by Dr. Jianmei Yu, a food and nutrition researcher in A&T’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, and two former A&T faculty members, Dr. Mohamed Ahmedna and Dr. Ipek Goktepe, both of whom are now at Qatar University.

“Treated peanuts can be used as whole peanuts, in pieces or as flour to make foods containing peanuts safer for many people who are allergic,” Dr. Yu said.

“Treated peanuts also can be used in immunotherapy,” she said. “Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts can build up a patient’s resistance to the allergens.”

Dr. Yu will be chief technology officer of a new company Xemerge will form to do further research on the process and develop and commercialize products such as hypoallergenic peanut butter.

“Our intent is to create a spinout with a sub-license to create new products under its own brand,” Rodrigues explains.

The process treats roasted peanuts, removed from the shell and skin, with food-grade enzymes commonly used in food processing. The treatment consists of soaking the peanuts in an enzymatic solution.

The treatment reduces two key allergens, Ara h 1 to undetectable levels and Ara h 2 by up to 98%. The resulting peanuts look and taste like roasted peanuts. The peanuts are not genetically modified.

The effectiveness of the process was demonstrated in human clinical trials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, using skin-prick tests.

In contrast to various other approaches to eliminating peanut allergens, the N.C. A&T process doesn’t involve chemicals or irradiation, and uses commonly available food-processing equipment.

Rodrigues said Xemerge said that while industry standard equipment can be used, manufacturers will probably have to keep it clean of peanuts that haven’t undergone the process. “One of the things we’re looking at is cross-contamination. “We would like to keep it clean.”

Xemerge, pronounced “zee-merge,” collaborates with technology transfer offices of research labs and universities to aggressively push technology into the marketplace, specializes in helping early-stage and established companies achieve business milestones, including early customer acquisition, strategic channel development, company messaging and positioning.

The firm is opening a Greensboro office, but the six-person company has deep connections in North Carolina. “We opened an office in Gateway Research Park in January, but we had one in Charlotte before.” He said he has extensive contacts here.

“We’ve been looking at North Carolina for quite a while,” Rodriquez said. “I think we can work with NC universities and create North Carolina-based companies with North Carolina technology. The state has a lot to offer. But we didn’t open in Greensboro because of the deal. We just strengthened our presence.”

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