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Keychain device warns of dangerous allergens in your food before you eat it

keychain allergens harvard allergy key fob
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Anyone who suffers from a serious food allergy — or has a friend, partner, or family member who does — knows just how fraught a simple restaurant outing can be. Even if a particular allergen isn’t readily apparent in a meal, there’s always the possibility that it is stealthily hiding below the surface, due to cross-contamination. That’s where the product of some research by investigators at Harvard Medical School comes into play. They’ve developed a portable allergen-detection system, including a keychain analyzer, that could be not just a game changer, but a life saver, too.

“This is a portable device or a ‘dongle’ for on-site detection of food allergens,” Professor Lee Hakho, who leads Harvard University’s Biomedical Engineering Program, told Digital Trends. “The incidence of food allergy is increasing worldwide, particularly among children, and yet no handy test is available for the general public. Our technology was developed to address this challenge — empowering consumers to control and safeguard their own diet.”

Described as integrated exogenous antigen testing (or, cutely, iEAT), the $40 system comprises three parts. One is a tiny single-use slide that’s used for collecting potential allergens. This is then plugged into the keychain analyzer which identifies said allergens, before an associated smartphone app wirelessly displays the necessary readings.

“This system is basically a platform technology, and can detect many different type of allergens by changing antibodies that capture target allergens,” Hakho said. “In this proof-of-concept study, we have tested five representative allergens: gluten, peanut, hazelnut, egg white, and milk.”

In each case, the device was shown to deliver answers concerning whether or not a food sample contained an allergen in under ten minutes. As if to prove its own use case, during testing of sample menu items from restaurants, allergens were demonstrated to show up in the darndest places — like gluten in salads and egg protein in beer.

Next up, Hakho said the team wants to extend its detection targets to include other allergens, such as shellfish, as well as harmful chemicals like BPA and pesticides. They are also keen to commercialize the technology, but in order for this to happen they plan to build a fully automated system that can perform the entire “sample in and answer out” job in one single integrated device.

While this isn’t the first handheld device we’ve covered purporting to carry out a similar task, easy allergen diagnosis is one area where we’re especially happy to have market competition driving everyone to do their best work. An article describing the Harvard project was recently published in the journal ACS Nano.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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