Pocket-Sized Device Provides Food Allergy Sufferers with Life-Saving Tableside Lab Results

If you’re among the 50 million Americans with a severe allergy to foods like gluten or nuts, every meal at a restaurant can feel like a potential land mine. Even if the restaurant has made an effort to provide dishes that are allergen-free, worries of cross-contamination and a subsequent severe or potentially life threatening reaction can still put a damper on your dinner plans.

To help ease concerns and keep food allergy sufferers safe, a team at Massachusetts General Hospital has developed a new device small enough to fit on a keyring that costs only $40 and can quickly and accurately test for food allergens.

While advances have been made in the packaged food industry, where new federal regulations require the manufacturer to disclose whether the product is made in a facility that also processes common allergens, these disclosures are not always accurate and there are no similar regulations for the restaurant industry.

Rather than force diners to completely avoid foods that have the chance of containing an allergen, or eat something only to regret it later, Mass General researchers created integrated exogenous antigen testing (iEAT), a pocket-sized device that can accurately analyze food for the presences of allergens in less than 10 minutes. Specifically, the device can screen for peanuts, hazelnuts, wheat, milk and eggs.

keychain pic.jpeg
The iEAT system

Developed by co-senior team leaders Ralph Weissleder, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Systems Biology (CSB) at Mass General and Hakho Lee, PhD, Hostetter MGH Research Scholar and Director of the Biomedical Engineering Program at the CSB, the device consists of three components:

  1. A small plastic test tube that the user can put a small sample of food into. The tube contains a solution that dissolves the sample and adds magnetic beads to the solution. The beads are designed to bind to the food allergen of interest.
  2. The user can then drop the solution onto an electrode chip, which is inserted into the keychain sized reader.
  3. The reader analyzes the sample and indicates on a small display whether the allergen is present, and if so, in what concentration.

Testing performed by the research team showed that measurements of the concentration of the allergen is extremely accurate. In fact, the device could detect levels of gluten that were 200 times lower than the federal standard. Accuracy is key because everyone’s sensitivity varies — some individuals could experience a reaction after consuming a miniscule trace of an allergen.

Weissleder and Lee have also developed a smartphone app to complement iEAT. With the app, users can compile and store the data they collect as they test different foods for various allergens at different restaurants and even in packaged foods. The app is set up to share this information online so others with the app will be able to find restaurants with foods that consistently have no or low levels that are below the individual’s triggering concentration.

cell phone app

Consumers may be able to purchase the $40 iEAT device and corresponding app in the near future — the research team has granted a license to a local start-up company to make the system commercially available. Weissleder and Lee also report that they could apply this technology to detect other substances in food such as MSG or even pesticides.

This research was recently highlighted in an NIH article and published in ACS Nano.

It was also recently featured in a news story on CBS Boston.

‘Hygiene Hypothesis’ Gets a Gut Check

A multi-institutional team that includes researchers from Mass General is investigating the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that early exposure to bacteria and other microbes early in life may help train the immune system to function properly and reduce the likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases and allergies, which have become more prevalent in modernized countries.

A recent study of the gut microbia from infants in three countries appears to support this theory.

Guess what? You’re Only 10% Human

From the University of California research blog:

Is space really the final frontier or are the greatest mysteries closer to home? Researchers estimate that there are more undiscovered microbes on Earth than stars in the sky.
The microbiome is fast becoming an exciting new frontier in human health. That’s because our bodies are made up of a staggering amount of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes that make you, well, you. In fact,
you’re only 10 percent human; the rest is this microbial system that lives on your skin, in your mouth, nose, throat, lungs, guts….you get the picture.


From potentially shaping our personalities to fighting obesity, our microbiomes play a much stronger role in our overall health than we once thought. And it varies from person to person based on diet, health history, ancestry, geographic location and climate. Even those you live with, including your pets, can influence your microbiome.

But there’s a lot that we don’t know about these microbes, which form the pervasive (yet practically invisible) infrastructure of life on Earth.

UC San Diego has created an interdisciplinary initiative on microbial sciences in order to understand microbiomes in a detailed way and to find methods of manipulating them for the benefit of human and environmental health.

“Getting an understanding of what microbial communities there are, how those microbial communities change naturally and how we can specifically alter them in order to benefit either the health of our own bodies or the health our planet holds tremendous potential for revolutionizing a wide range of fields,” biologist Rob Knight explains.

New Polymer Gel Could Improve the Safety of Slow-Release Medications


A research team from Mass General and MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research are working on a new type of polymer gel that could allow swallowed medical devices or capsules to safely act inside the body over the course of days, weeks or even months.

Improving the safety of slow-release medications could open the door for devices that control hunger in patients with obesity, help to diagnose gastrointestinal issues and extend the effects of drugs.

Long-term devices are not currently in wide use because of the potential for causing an intestinal blockage when the device reaches the small intestine.

However, this new gel is designed to break down upon entering the small intestine. Giovanni Traverso, MBBCh, PhD, of the Department of Gastroenterology at Mass General, is co-senior author of the study.


Study Suggests that Meditation and Yoga May Help Symptoms of IBS and IBD

A new pilot study that includes researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that teaching relaxation techniques to patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may help to alleviate their symptoms and better equip them to deal with the discomfort that results from both disorders.

In a study of 48 individuals with IBS or IBD, entering a state of deep rest induced by
meditation or yoga appears to have improved disease-related symptoms, anxiety
and overall quality of life.

Dr. Braden Kuo of the Mass General Department of Medicine is co-lead author of report, which featured collaborators from the
Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. A larger clinical study is now needed to see if the same results can be confirmed more broadly.