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Imagine if every meal you ate felt like a game of Russian roulette. If you’re one of the 20% of Australians living with a food allergy, you know this feeling all too well.
Whether you’re triggered by peanuts, egg, cow's milk, tree nuts, seafood, sesame, soy, fish, wheat or a combination of the above, life with an allergy isn’t easy. While many allergens aren’t severe and may even be outgrown over time, others can result in serious illness or even death with as little as one minute’s exposure.
The Australian Food Standards Code requires common allergens to be clearly marked on food labels, as well as signposted or shared at cafes, restaurants and fast food outlets.
Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, this can often do little to alleviate stress, given a small mistake in labelling can result in a big allergic reaction.
But all is not lost. Here are five revolutionary technologies available now, or currently in development, to help those of us living with allergies.
Set for pre-orders in April 2019 in the US, and with plans to expand to Australia, this wearable USB-sized food reader will test for dairy and peanuts in food, with the goal to eventually be able to detect the presence of tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, eggs, soy and gluten.
The Allergy Amulet allows a user to test a sample of their food to find out if their food allergen is present. The test comes in the form of an amulet which can be carried on a keychain or worn as a necklace or bracelet.
Users will simply insert a single-use test trip into their food and then place that strip into a sheath, which will mix the food with a buffer solution. A chip will slide out from the end of the sheath, which can be inserted into the Allergy Amulet reader. The reader will then return a result alerting the user if there’s a presence of the target allergenic ingredient – all in under a minute. Phew!
The device will cost between $210 - $350AUD, with disposable test strips setting you back around $4AUD each.
CRISPR is a gene-editing technique that allows scientists to edit a plant’s genome to remove allergenic traits – most recently it hit the news as a technology capable of generating an allergy-free peanut.
While the technology is reportedly coming along rapidly, there is no clear timeline on when we might see a hypoallergenic peanut in stores. Scientists still need to determine all the allergenic traits in said nut, how any changes may affect the non-allergenic genes and what will be left of the nut in terms of protein and other nutritional value – not to mention flavour and texture. But once this science is unlocked, the sky is really the limit.
Another pocket-sized, portable food allergen testing device and app, Ally is a Bluetooth enabled electronic device the size of a doughnut. Users crush a small food sample and a few drops of water inside a small flexible silicone pod, then insert a test strip. By pressing the middle of the pod while the app is open on your phone, feedback on the food's allergen status appears on your screen within a minute.
Originally a university design project that has since received funding to develop commercially, Ally is tipped to become the cheapest reader on the market – current estimates put it at little more than $55AUD per unit, with each test costing the user less than 40c.
Ally successfully tests for lactose, but further tests for different allergens are still in development.
While only available in the US and Europe with no current plans for Australian distribution, Nima is one of the first allergen readers available on a mass scale. It does come in at the higher end of the price scale at $280AUD for a gluten starter kit, $340AUD for a peanut starter kit and test capsules clocking in at $83AUD.
Developed by MIT scientists, Nima is well regarded for its compact size and ease of use – users simply place a pea-sized sample of food into a one-time-use capsule and screw on the cap. They then insert the capsule into the hand-held device, press the power button and in less than five minutes the sensor will display a message alerting the user to any trace presence of the allergen – whether that be peanuts or gluten.
In honour of a young girl who passed away after suffering an anaphylactic reaction to a food allergen, Project Abbie is actively working to develop a wearable, non-invasive device that can detect anaphylaxis, alarm the patient, send signals to caregivers via phone and auto-inject life-saving adrenaline in individuals who are unable to do so themselves. Multiple technology components of this project are still in development phases, and there is no estimated delivery date at this stage.
At the end of the day, none of these technologies are set to replace your EpiPen, or allergy action plans, however, they all show promise at making life with food allergies that little bit easier.
Keen to find out more about the future of healthcare and medicine? Check out our Future Happenings section where we talk AI, robots and telemedicine.