Frustrated by poison oak, 15-year-old Amy Dunphy invented a cure for it

poison oak antidote amy dunphy

How many 15-year-old budding chemists are you aware of who hold a provisional patent for a potentially transformative invention? Friends of San Jose teenager Amy Dunphy know at least one.

For the past two and a half years, since she was in her early teens, Dunphy has been tirelessly researching an antidote to protect people from poison oak, a plant which can grow up to six feet tall and whose leaves cause a nasty allergic reaction in 80-90 percent of people.

“This isn’t something affiliated with my school work; it’s something I’ve been doing on the side,” Dunphy told Digital Trends.

She said that her extracurricular project grew out of her love of hiking in the hills around her home. “Poison oak is a plant which grows all over the place where I live,” she continued. “If you go hiking and you come into contact with it, you get an incredibly nasty, itchy rash that will last a week. It’s just miserable. I got really sick of getting it seemingly every time I went outside, so I decided to look into a way of getting rid of it.”

Unfortunately, when she started looking for an off-the-shelf solution, Dunphy found that none were available to buy. This is the point at which most teenagers (and, let’s be honest, most people regardless of age) would have given up. But Dunphy kept digging.

“If you put the chemical on your skin and then brush up against a poison oak leaf, you won’t get a rash.”

Eventually, she found that a neutralizer to urushiol — the irritating oil released by poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac — existed, albeit not in a particularly useful form.

Instead, it was part of lacquer, the clear or colored wood finish which produces a hard, durable finish for wooden cabinetry. The oil urushiol is a key component of lacquer, although the presence of an antidote stops the majority of people suffering an allergic reaction whenever they touch a lacquered surface.

“It contained the safe allergen, but reacted into a different form,” Dunphy said. “That told me that if I could react it in a particular way it would no longer affect people. That was my goal.”

She went on to create her own solution by mixing benzoyl peroxide, an antiseptic that is regularly found in anti-acne products, with urushiol. “It’s a chemical that is safe for use on your skin and will deactivate the allergen in poison oak,” she continued. “It deactivates around 95 percent of the allergen, which is below the threshold that causes a reaction in adults. That means that if you put the chemical on your skin and then brush up against a poison oak leaf, you won’t get a rash.”

At present, Dunphy said that she is going through pre-clinical trials with her development.

“I’ve formulated it into a cream with the consistency of sunscreen,” she explained. “Next I’m planning to trial it on rodents to see if it will work in vivo. I’ve got a provisional patent, and I’ll be able to file for a full patent in the next couple of months. I’ve not spoken with any companies yet, but ultimately I’d like to turn this into a product that can be made available to everyone who suffers from poison oak.”

All in all, it’s an incredibly impressive story — and Dunphy well and truly deserves the accolades she’s been given, which so far include a 2016 Popular MechanicsYouth Breakthrough Award” and $1,200 prize from the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST).

poison oak antidote amy dunphy 2

While we read plenty of reports about the importance of getting young people — and particularly underrepresented young women — interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, it’s great to hear about someone taking the initiative without having to be forced into a classroom.

As for her own budding career, Dunphy told us that she is keen on continuing her work in STEM, but is still selecting the area that’s right for her.

“I definitely want to do something involving science, but I also really like physics as well as chemistry,” she said. “I still don’t know yet.”

If you want to find out more information about Amy Dunphy’s project you can do so by checking out her “Preventing Urushiol (Poison Oak) Induced Dermatitis by Deactivating the Allergen” here.


‘Fortnite’ named Ultimate Game of the Year at the Golden Joystick awards

This year's Golden Joysticks, the gaming awards handed out by GamesRadar, have been announced and Fortnite has been named the Ultimate Game of the Year. It beat out Red Dead Redemption for best game, but Red Dead was named critics' choice.
Home Theater

If you've got questions about Ultra HD Blu-ray, we've got answers

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players are a killer way to beef up your home theater. Here's everything you need to know about one of the most significant advances to hit home entertainment in years.
Emerging Tech

Prepare for liftoff: Here are all the important upcoming SpaceX rocket launches

From ISS resupply missions to a host of communication and scientific satellite launches, SpaceX has a busy year ahead. Here's a rundown of some of the company's most important missions slated for the next year.
Home Theater

LG price cuts on C8 OLED TVs for Black Friday are more of a sliver than a slash

LG cut prices on its vaunted C8 series OLED TVs, but the deals aren't as good as last year, and therefore are less compelling. Still, if you're in the market for a new TV this year, we still suggest giving these deals a serious look.
Emerging Tech

DJI Mavic 2 Pro vs Mavic 2 Zoom: What’s the real difference?

DJI's Mavic 2 series drones are ready to fly -- but which one is right for you? The Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom are nearly identical save for their cameras. Here's what you need to know about these powerful new UAVs.
Emerging Tech

This startup will sequence your entire genome for free — but there’s a catch

Want to get your DNA sequenced but don’t want to shell out the hundred bucks or so to do so? A new startup called Nebula Genomics offers you the opportunity to have it done for free.
Emerging Tech

Students who designed transforming smart home will compete in Solar Decathalon

Modular smart homes are all the rage, and now some students from Virginia Tech are putting their money on their FutureHAUS, a modular, solar-powered, transforming smart home they're taking to the Solar Decathlon in Dubai.
Emerging Tech

Here’s all the best tech gear and gadgetry that survived Shark Tank

The television show "Shark Tank" has churned out quite a few strange, interesting, and downright awesome products -- so we rounded up some of the best ones for your perusal. Enjoy!
Emerging Tech

Hotter than the sun: Chinese fusion reactor claims breakthrough

China’s “artificial sun” has reached a temperature of 180 million ºF with a heating power of 10 megawatts -- six times hotter than the center of the sun. The achievement could mark progress towards fusion as a clean energy source.
Emerging Tech

Hope it doesn’t melt! Rocket to ISS carries vital supplies — including ice cream

A rocket has launched over Virginia's eastern shore, carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Inside the spacecraft are supplies for the ISS itself and the crew onboard, such as scientific equipment and food.
Emerging Tech

‘Super-Earth’ discovered orbiting nearby star

Astronomers have discovered a large planet circling a sun nearby to Earth called Barnard's Star. The potential new planet is thought to be cold and icy and has a size of around 3.2 times the Earth.
Emerging Tech

OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully tests its asteroid-sampling arm

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, launched in September 2016, is closing in on its target of the Bennu asteroid. The craft has now unfurled its robotic arm, called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), and tested it successfully.
Emerging Tech

Microsoft’s friendly new A.I wants to figure out what you want — before you ask

Move over Siri and Alexa! Microsoft wants to build a new type of virtual assistant that wants to be your friend. Already making waves in Asia, could this be the future of A.I. BFFs?
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: A.I. selfie drones, ‘invisible’ wireless chargers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!