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 of researchers 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.

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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.

Five Things to Know: The Blood-Brain Barrier, Intestinal Permeability and Autism

In this new series, we’ll provide you with five things you need to know about breaking research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Researchers from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) recently came out with a study published in Molecular Autism. Here are five things to know:

  1. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., with 1 in every 68 children born in this country diagnosed with ASD. Parents and researchers alike are looking for both the causes and treatment options for this complex condition.
  2. The blood-brain barrier prevents materials in the blood from entering the brain, and intestinal epithelial tissue (the intestine’s lining) creates a boundary between the intestine and its external environment. When either of these two barriers isn’t functioning properly, it can lead to inflammation in the body.
  3. Researchers from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Mass General and the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MGHfC looked at how the blood-brain barrier and increased intestinal permeability, otherwise known as a ‘leaky gut’, might affect the development of ASD. The study involved analyzing postmortem brain tissues from 33 individuals (8 with ASD, 10 with schizophrenia and 15 healthy controls) and intestinal tissues from 21 individuals (12 with ASD and 9 without such disorders).
  4. The results showed alterations in both blood-brain barrier and intestinal permeability in individuals with ASD. This is the first time anyone has shown that an altered blood-brain barrier and impaired intestinal barrier might both play a role in inflammation of the nervous tissue in people with ASD.
  5. What’s next? Researchers plan to look at how microbiota, the collection of microorganisms in the gut, are linked with leaky gut and behavior. Researchers already know that kids with ASD have an altered composition of gut microbial communities. If they can figure out what is required or missing, then they can come up with a treatment that might be able to improve some of the behavioral issues and/or the gastrointestinal symptoms.

Learn more about this study here.