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Airborne Food Allergens—What’s the Risk?

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When we hear stories of serious allergic reactions to food, they often involve someone unknowingly ingesting a food that contains their allergen. Gut-wrenching stories like the grilled cheese that killed a NYC preschooler, the Indian takeout food fatality in England, the woman left paralyzed after ingesting peanuts while traveling in Budapest, and the sesame-related death of a teenage girl after eating a Prèt A Manger baguette at an airport. 

For many of us, these stories hit a bit too close to home.

In these cases, the food was ingested—but what happens when the allergen goes airborne?  

In January, a story about an 11-year-old New Jersey boy rocked headlines after he died from what authorities believe was an allergic reaction from breathing in the steam from fish cooking in the kitchen. 

While rare, allergic reactions to aerosolized allergens do occur. 

According to Dr. John Lee, Clinical Director of the Boston Children’s Food Allergy Program, most airborne reactions probably occur due to particles of protein that rise into the air when food is actively cooked, and then they’re inhaled. “I’ve had patients describe their throat itching while around peanuts, or reported mild reactions on airplanes, but most airborne reactions typically result from particles of protein rising off heated foods.” For example, he offers someone with a shellfish allergy walking into a seafood restaurant, or a wheat-allergic patient standing near boiling pasta.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, exposure to airborne food allergens does not typically result in anaphylaxis; however, these airborne particulates can cause symptoms such as itchy eyes, a runny nose, a cough, congestion, and difficulty breathing.

Airborne food particulates can also trigger two forms of occupational asthma: 1) baker’s asthma, following exposure to powdered allergen substances such as dried egg powder, soy flour, or wheat flour during baking; and 2) crab asthma, which is caused by dust and fume exposure from steaming, cooking, or scrubbing crab in processing plants. Both forms of asthma are considered allergic diseases because of the role allergenic proteins play in the respiratory response.

Notably, airborne allergic reactions aren’t limited to food. In at least one case, a chemical fragrance was the culprit. After a teenager named Brandon started developing headaches and hives at school, he connected his symptoms to Axe Body Spray. His allergy to the spray worsened, eventually leading to anaphylactic shock. Laws protecting manufacturers like Axe barred disclosure of the spray’s full ingredients list, preventing his family from discovering the allergenic trigger. Brandon had to leave school because of the exposure risks. 

Suffice it to say, airborne allergenic reactions extend beyond food. 

Most reported airborne reactions, however, continue to stem from common allergenic foods. Since peanut is the number one trigger of food-related anaphylaxis, the extent to which peanut particulates pose a risk is a common question in the food allergy community. 

In a 2003 study of 30 children with severe peanut allergies, researchers examined the extent to which inhalation and skin exposure elicited a reaction. For the skin test, one third of children experienced reddening or skin flares after peanut butter was pressed to their skin for one minute. Conversely, no child experienced respiratory symptoms after sitting in close proximity to three ounces of peanut butter for ten minutes.

The topic of aerosolized allergenic reactions has stirred enough controversy among food-allergic travelers that Southwest Airlines stopped serving peanuts on all flights starting in August 2018, and JetBlue does not serve peanuts on its aircrafts.

Food for thought? We think so. Have you experienced an airborne allergen causing an allergic reaction? Please share your experience if so! 

- Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

This piece was written by the Allergy Amulet team and reviewed by Allergy Amulet advisors Dr. John Lee and Dr. Jordan Scott. 

Dr. John Lee is the Clinical Director of the Food Allergy Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Lee is widely recognized for his work in food allergy, and his commitment to patient health. 

Dr. Scott is an allergist/immunologist and operates several private allergy clinics throughout the Boston area. He is on the board of overseers at Boston Children’s Hospital, and the past President of the Massachusetts Allergy and Asthma Society. 

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Humans Are Pooping Plastic

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Got your attention? Thought so. 😉

If you’re thinking, What does poop have to do with food allergies? First, food allergies affect our health and diet, which implicates our digestive tract. Number two, research is increasingly looking to the gut for answers around the rise in food allergies. For these reasons, we thought the topic was a-poo-priate. 💩

This past summer, Austrian researchers reported that the deluge of plastic entering our environment is now entering our stool. That’s right—plastic has been discovered in 114 aquatic species90% of seabirds, and now, evidently, in us. 

As part of this first-of-its-kind study, researchers followed eight volunteers from a handful of European countries, tracked their consumption habits, and then sampled their stool. Small fibers of plastic—known as microplastics—were found in all participants’ feces to varying degrees, amounting to the first documentation of plastic in human feces to date. The findings confirmed what many scientists have long suspected: we’re eating plastic.

Scientists are now grappling with the health implications, which are largely unknown. Microplastics are capable of damaging the reproductive and gastrointestinal systems in sea life, but little is known about their impact on humans.

On average, 13 billion microplastic particles enter US waterways every day through the municipal water supply. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. The latter bulk of plastic gets broken down into smaller bits, which are eaten by smaller organisms, and make their way up the food chain.

How does this relate to the food allergy and intolerance community? 

First, we know that immune health is closely tied to food allergies and intolerances. Experts have found that plastic in the gut can suppress the immune system and increase the likelihood of gastrointestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease. Second, research has shown that exposure to phthalates, which are found in many plastics, can increase childhood risk of allergies. According to the lead researcher of the study, Dr. Philipp Schwabi: “[my] primary concern is the human impact… especially [on] patients with gastrointestinal diseases.” He notes that “the smallest particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, the lymphatic system and may even reach the liver.”

While research on the human impact of plastic is still early, one thing is clear: plastic may be harming our immune systems, which could potentially implicate our body’s ability to tolerate and digest certain foods.

We’re eating our waste—that much is clear. Now the question is, what are we going to do about it? 

-      Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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A Brief History of Molecularly Imprinted Polymers: The Heart of Allergy Amulet’s Technology

Dr. Joseph BelBruno, Scientific Advisor at Allergy Amulet.

Dr. Joseph BelBruno, Scientific Advisor at Allergy Amulet.

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you’ve probably heard us talk about our scientific approach to detecting food allergens: molecularly imprinted polymer (MIP) films. These films lie at the technological heart of the Allergy Amulet. 

In a previous post, we covered the basics of how the technology works. Quick review: an MIP is a polymer (plastic) formed in the presence of target template molecules to create molecular molds. Once the templates are removed from our films, they leave behind trillions upon trillions of plastic molded “locks” that bind when in the presence of our molecular “keys.” In our films, these keys represent allergenic ingredients.

Today’s post looks at the history of MIP technology. While our science team has made considerable breakthroughs in the MIP field, we didn’t pull the foundation technology out of thin air. In fact, the body of work on MIPs dates back almost 100 years!

The first scientific mention of MIPs was back in 1931: a scientist named M. V. Polyakov discovered that when he made polymers out of silica in the presence of another molecule, the polymers would selectively absorb that molecule.

Some say the origins of MIP technology started with Jean Dickey at Cal Tech. He tried imprinting silica with organics back in 1949. The modern approach to imprinting began in Europe in the seventies and eighties with Klaus Mosbach in Sweden, Günter Wulff in Germany, Borje Sellegren in Amsterdam, and Karsten Haupt in France. These and other scientists developed many of the classic methods for creating imprinted polymers. Importantly, some studies found that in select circumstances, MIPs could imitate the functions of receptors, enzymes, and other biological molecules. 

After these initial discoveries, scientists identified new applications throughout the 20th century—mostly in drug separation—and you can currently buy MIP resins from leading science manufacturers like Sigma Aldrich. Yet, as with any nascent technology, development progressed slowly. Only in the past ten years have MIPs finally hit their stride: nearly half of all MIP papers were written in the past decade. Over time, researchers have optimized the conditions and techniques for developing MIPs, which has expanded the types of molecules MIPs are capable of imprinting. This has dovetailed with advancements in nanotechnology and communications technology. For example, the nanomaterials we use in our sensors were prohibitively expensive ten years ago. With these advancements, diverse commercial applications of MIP technology are finally becoming a reality.

For a detection device, successfully imprinting an allergenic ingredient (or any other target) is only half the battle.

Why is that? Well, even if an MIP can selectively bind the target molecule, it does so on a nanoscopic scale—we would have no way of knowing that binding occurred. Creating an MIP sensor accordingly requires a system that can translate that imprinting into something comprehensible (what scientists would call a transducer). While there has been significant research into different types of transducers for MIPs, a common approach has been electrical conductivity: an easily measured property that is already widely used in sensor technology.

There are several methods that convert successful imprinting to an electrical response. Two of the most popular methods involve using either conductive polymers or combining the MIPs with conductive nanomaterials.

Some of the first successes in creating conductive MIPs originated with Dr. Joseph BelBruno: a world-renowned chemist, Dartmouth chemistry professor, and Scientific Advisor at Allergy Amulet. Dr. BelBruno’s research laid the foundation for developing conductive MIP sensors. His work spawned the first commercial application of MIP sensors.

Allergy Amulet is positioned to become the second company to commercialize MIP sensors, and the first to create MIP sensors for detecting allergenic ingredients. Our sensors combine MIPs with an electrical response to create sensors for detecting molecular tracers of allergenic ingredients in food.

As with any novel application of an existing technology, it is important to recognize and pay tribute to the work of those before us. Learning and studying from the successes and failures of our predecessors is how we will advance as a scientific community, and advance as a society.    

-      Nazir and the Allergy Amulet Team

 

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