allergies

Peanuts on a plate can be deadly for those with severe allergies, but an Israeli startup company wants to alleviate that fear.

(Photo credit: @corleto/Unsplash)


People with life-threatening allergies live in constant fear of coming into contact with deadly allergens. Researchers estimate that about 32 million Americans have food allergies, with the most severe being milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.

"It is important to understand that just several years ago, this would not have been possible."

Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room, and 200,000 people in the U.S. require emergency medical care each year for allergic reactions, according to Food Allergy Research and Education.

But what if there was a way you could easily detect if something you were about to eat contains any harmful allergens? Thanks to Israeli scientists, this will soon be the case — at least for peanuts. The team has been working to develop a handheld device called Allerguard, which analyzes the vapors in your meal and can detect allergens in 30 seconds.

Leapsmag spoke with the founder and CTO of Allerguard, Guy Ayal, about the groundbreaking technology, how it works, and when it will be available to purchase.

What prompted you to create this device? Do you have a personal connection with severe food allergies?

Guy Ayal: My eldest daughter's best friend suffers from a severe food allergy, and I experienced first-hand the effect it has on the person and their immediate surroundings. Most notable for me was the effect on the quality of life – the experience of living in constant fear. Everything we do at Allerguard is basically to alleviate some of that fear.

How exactly does the device work?

The device is built on two main pillars. The first is the nano-chemical stage, in which we developed specially attuned nanoparticles that selectively adhere only to the specific molecules that we are looking for. Those molecules, once bound to the nanoparticles, induce a change in their electrical behavior, which is measured and analyzed by the second main pillar -- highly advanced machine learning algorithms, which can surmise which molecules were collected, and thus whether or not peanuts (or in the future, other allergens) were detected.

It is important to understand that just several years ago, this would not have been possible, because both the nano-chemistry, and especially the entire world of machine learning, big data, and what is commonly known as AI only started to exist in the '90s, and reached applicability for handheld devices only in the past few years.

Where are you at in the development process and when will the device be available to consumers?

We have concluded the proof of concept and proof of capability phase, when we demonstrated successful detection of the minimal known clinical amount that may cause the slightest effect in the most severely allergic person – less than 1 mg of peanut (actually it is 0.7 mg). Over the next 18 months will be productization, qualification, and validation of our device, which should be ready to market in the latter half of 2021. The sensor will be available in the U.S., and after a year in Europe and Canada.

The Allerguard was made possible through recent advances in machine learning, big data, and AI.

(Courtesy)

How much will it cost?

Our target price is about $200 for the device, with a disposable SenseCard that will run for at least a full day and cost about $1. That card is for a specific allergen and will work for multiple scans in a day, not just one time.

[At a later stage, the company will have sensors for other allergens like tree nuts, eggs, and milk, and they'll develop a multi-SenseCard that works for a few allergens at once.]

Are there any other devices on the market that do something similar to Allerguard?

No other devices are even close to supplying the level of service that we promise. All known methods for allergen detection rely on sampling of the food, which is a viable solution for homogenous foodstuffs, such as a factory testing their raw ingredients, but not for something as heterogenous as an actual dish – especially not for solid allergens such as peanuts, treenuts, or sesame.

If there is a single peanut in your plate, and you sample from anywhere on that plate which is not where that peanut is located, you will find that your sample is perfectly clean – because it is. But the dish is not. That dish is a death trap for an allergic person. Allerguard is the only suggested solution that could indeed detect that peanut, no matter where in that plate it is hiding.

Anything else readers should know?
Our first-generation product will be for peanuts only. You have to understand, we are still a start-up company, and if we don't concentrate our limited resources to one specific goal, we will not be able to achieve anything at all. Once we are ready to market our first device, the peanut detector, we will be able to start the R&D for the 2nd product, which will be for another allergen – most likely tree nuts and/or sesame, but that will probably be in debate until we actually start it.

Michelle Gant
Michelle Gant is an editor at GOOD Worldwide. She was previously at Fox, StyleCaster, Domino, SELF, and CBS.

A baby who cannot tolerate milk due to an allergy.

( © komokvm/Adobe)


Like any life-threatening medical condition that affects children, food allergies can traumatize more than just the patient. My wife and I learned this one summer afternoon when our daughter was three years old.

Emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016.

At an ice cream parlor, I gave Samantha a lick of my pistachio cone; within seconds, red blotches erupted on her skin, her lips began to swell, and she complained that her throat felt funny. We rushed her to the nearest emergency room, where a doctor injected her with epinephrine. Explaining that the reaction, known as anaphylaxis, could have been fatal if left unchecked, he advised us to have her tested for nut allergies—and to start carrying an injector of our own.

After an allergist confirmed Sam's vulnerability to tree nuts and peanuts, we figured that keeping her safe would be relatively simple. But food allergies often come in bunches. Over the next year, she wound up back in the ER after eating bread with sesame seeds at an Italian restaurant, and again after slurping buckwheat noodles at our neighborhood Japanese. She hated eggs, so we discovered that (less severe) allergy only when she vomited after eating a variety of products containing them.

In recent years, a growing number of families have had to grapple with such challenges. An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies, or nearly 10 percent of the population—10 times the prevalence reported 35 years ago. The severity of symptoms seems to be increasing, too. According to a study released in January by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a Virginia-based nonprofit, insurance claims for anaphylactic food reactions rose 377 percent in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016.

Because food allergies most commonly emerge in childhood, these trends are largely driven by the young. An insurance-industry study found that emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016. Peanut allergies, once rare, tripled in kids between 1997 and 2008. "The first year, it was 1 in 250," says Scott Sicherer, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, who led that study. "When we did the next round of research, in 2002, it was 1 in 125. I thought there must be a mistake. But by 2008, it was 1 in 70."

The forces behind these dire statistics—as well as similar numbers throughout the developed world—have yet to be positively identified. But the leading suspects are elements of our modern lifestyle that can throw the immune system out of whack, prompting potentially deadly overreactions to harmless proteins. Although parents can take a few steps that might lessen their children's risk, societal changes may be needed to brighten the larger epidemiological picture.

Meanwhile, scientists are racing to develop therapies that can induce patients' hyped-up immune defenses to chill. And lately, they've made some big strides toward that goal.

A Variety of Culprits

In the United States, about 90 percent of allergic reactions come from eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. The list varies from country to country, depending on dietary customs, but what the trigger foods all have in common is proteins that can survive breakdown in the stomach and enter the bloodstream more or less intact.

"When we were kids, we played in the dirt. Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."

A food allergy results from a chain of biochemical misunderstandings. The first time the immune system encounters an allergen (as a protein that triggers an allergy is known), it mistakes the substance for a hostile invader—perhaps a parasite with a similar molecular profile. In response, it produces an antibody called immunoglobin E (IgE), which is designed to bind to a specific protein and flag it for attack. These antibodies circulate through the bloodstream and attach to immune-system foot soldiers known as mast cells and basophils, which congregate in the nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.

The next time the person is exposed to the allergen, the IgE antibodies signal the warrior cells to blast the intruder with histamines and other chemical weapons. Tissues in the affected areas swell and leak fluid; blood pressure may fall. Depending on the strength of the reaction, collateral damage to the patient can range from unpleasant—itching, runny nose, nausea—to catastrophic.

This kind of immunological glitchiness runs in families. Genome-wide association studies have identified a dozen genes linked to allergies of all types, and twin studies suggest that about 80 percent of the risk of food allergies is heritable. But why one family member shows symptoms while another doesn't remains unknown. Nor can genetics explain why food allergy rates have skyrocketed in such a brief period. For that, we must turn to the environment.

First, it's important to note that rates of all allergies are rising—including skin and respiratory afflictions—though none as rapidly or with as much risk of anaphylaxis as those involving food. The takeoff was already underway in the late 1980s, when British epidemiologist David P. Strachan found that children in larger households had fewer instances of hay fever. The reason, he suggested, was that their immune systems were strengthened by exposure to their siblings' germs. Since then, other researchers have discerned more evidence for Strachan's "hygiene hypothesis": higher rates of allergy (as well as autoimmune disorders) in cities versus rural areas, in industrialized countries versus developing ones, in lab animals raised under sterile conditions versus those exposed to germs.

Fending off a variety of pathogens, experts theorize, helps train the immune system to better distinguish friend from foe, and to respond to threats in a more nuanced manner. In an era of increasing urbanization, shrinking family sizes, and more sheltered lifestyles, such conditioning may be harder to come by. "When we were kids, we played in the dirt," observes Cathryn R. Nagler, a professor and food allergy researcher at the University of Chicago. "Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."

But other factors may be driving the allergy epidemic as well. More time indoors, for example, means less exposure to sunlight, which can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D—a nutrient crucial to immune system regulation. The growing popularity of processed foods filled with refined fats and sugars may play a role, along with rising rates of obesity, by promoting tissue inflammation that could increase some people's risk of immunological mayhem. And the surge in allergies also correlates with several trends that may be altering the human microbiome, the community of microbes (including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, among others) that inhabits our guts, skin, and bodily orifices.

The microbiome connection may be particularly relevant to food allergies. In 2014, a team led by Nagler published a landmark study showing that Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against these allergies. When the researchers fed peanut allergens to germ-free mice (born and raised in sterile conditions) and to mice treated with antibiotics as newborns (reducing their gut bacteria), the animals showed a strong immunological response. This sensitization could be reversed, however, by reintroducing Clostridia—but not another class of bacteria, Bacteroides—into the mice. Further experiments revealed that Clostridia caused immune cells to produce high levels of interleukin-22 (IL-22), a signaling molecule known to decrease the permeability of the intestinal lining.

"In simple terms," Nagler says, "what we found is that these bacteria prevent food allergens from gaining access to the blood in an intact form that elicits an allergic reaction."

A growing body of evidence suggests that our eating habits are throwing our gut microbiota off-balance, in part by depriving helpful species of the dietary fiber they feed on. Our increasing exposure to antibiotics and antimicrobial compounds may be harming our beneficial bugs as well. These depletions could affect kids from the moment they enter the world: Because babies are seeded with their mothers' microbiota as they pass through the birth canal, they may be inheriting a less diverse microbiome than did previous generations. And the rising rate of caesarian deliveries may be further depriving our children of the bugs they need.

On expert suggests two measures worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics.

So which culprit is most responsible for the food allergy upsurge? "The illnesses that we're measuring are complex," says Sicherer. "There are multiple genetic inputs, which interact with one another, and there are multiple environmental inputs, which interact with each other and with the genes. There's not one single thing that's causing this. It's a conglomeration."

What Parents Can Do

For anyone hoping to reduce their child's or their own odds of developing a food allergy (rates of adult onset are also increasing), the current state of science offers few guideposts. As with many other areas of health research, it's hard to know when the data is solid enough to warrant a particular course of action. A case in point: the American Academy of Pediatrics once recommended that children at risk of allergy to peanuts (as evidenced by family history, other food allergies, or eczema) wait to eat them until age three; now, the AAP advises those parents to start their babies at four months, citing epidemiological evidence that early exposure may prevent peanut allergies.

And it's all too easy for a layperson to draw mistaken conclusions from media coverage of such research—inferring, for instance, that taking commercially available probiotics might have a protective effect. Unfortunately, says Nagler, none of those products even contain the relevant kind of bacteria.

Although, as a research scientist, she refrains from giving medical advice, Nagler does suggest (based on a large body of academic literature) that two measures are worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics. Yet she acknowledges that it's not always possible to avoid the suspected risk factors for food allergies. Sometimes an antibiotic is a lifesaving necessity, for example—and it's tough to avoid exposure to such drugs altogether, due to their use in animal feed and their consequent presence in many foods and in the water supply. If these chemicals are contributing to the food allergy epidemic, protecting ourselves will require action from farmers, doctors, manufacturers, and policymakers.

My family's experience illustrates the limits of healthy lifestyle choices in mitigating allergy risk. My daughter and son were born without C-sections; both were breastfed as well, receiving maximum microbial seeding from their mother. As a family, we eat exemplary diets, and no one could describe our home as excessively clean. Yet one child can't taste nuts, sesame, or buckwheat without becoming dangerously ill. "You can do everything right and still have allergies," says Ian A. Myles, a staff clinician at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "You can do everything wrong and not have allergies. The two groups overlap."

The Latest Science Shows Promise

But while preventing all food allergies is clearly unrealistic, researchers are making remarkable progress in developing better treatments—therapies that, instead of combating symptoms after they've started (like epinephrine or antihistamines), aim to make patients less sensitive to allergens in the first place. One promising approach is oral immunotherapy (OIT), in which patients consume small but slowly increasing amounts of an allergen, gradually reducing their sensitivity. A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that an experimental OIT called AR101, consisting of a standardized peanut powder mixed into food, enabled 67 percent of participants to tolerate a dose equivalent to two peanut kernels—a potential lifesaver if they were accidentally exposed to the real thing.

Because OIT itself can trigger troublesome reactions in some patients, however, it's not for everyone. Another experimental treatment, sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) uses an allergen solution or dissolving tablet placed beneath the tongue; although its results are less robust than OIT's, it seems to generate milder side effects. Epicutaneous immunotherapy (EPIT) avoids the mouth entirely, using a technology similar to a nicotine patch to deliver allergens through the skin. Researchers are also exploring the use of medications known as biologics, aiming to speed up the action of immunotherapies by suppressing IgE or targeting other immune-system molecules.

These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies.

One downside of the immunotherapy approach is that in most cases the allergen must be taken indefinitely to maintain desensitization. To provide a potentially permanent fix, scientists are working on vaccines that use DNA or peptides (protein fragments) from allergens to reset patients' immune systems.

Nagler is attacking the problem from a different angle—one that starts with the microbiome. In a recent study, a follow-up to her peanut-allergy investigation, she and her colleagues found that Clostridia bacteria protect mice against milk allergy as well; they also identified a particular species responsible, known as Anaerostipes caccae. The bugs, the team determined, produce a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, which modulates many immune activities crucial to maintaining a well-sealed gut.

These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies. Nagler has launched a company, ClostraBio, to develop biotherapeutics based on this notion; she expects its first product, using synthetic butyrate, to be ready for clinical trials within the next two years.

My daughter could well be a candidate for such a medication. Sam, now 15, is a vibrant, resilient kid who handles her allergies with confidence and humor. Thanks to vigilance and luck (on her part as well as her parents'), she hasn't had another food-related ER visit in more than a decade; she's never had to use her Epi-Pen. Still, she says, she would welcome the arrival of a pill that could reduce the danger. "I've learned how to watch out for myself," she says. "But it would be nice not to have to be so careful."

Kenneth Miller
Kenneth Miller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor at Discover, and has reported from four continents for publications including Time, Life, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Aeon. His honors include The ASJA Award for Best Science Writing and the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Writing. Visit his website at www.kennethmiller.net.
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