Wearables vs allergies: Can technology make a difference yet?

From detecting peanuts to picking up pollen, these wearables want to help save lives
Wearables vs allergies

Allergies are on the rise all over the world. According to Allergy UK, an estimated 21 million adults are affected in the UK and as many as one in five people suffer from allergic rhinitis (also commonly known as hay fever).

The number of food allergy sufferers in Britain has doubled in the last decade alone, and a 2013 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that food allergies among children increased by around 50% between 1997 and 2011.

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A miracle allergy cure for every scenario is still elusive but the condition can be managed effectively. Luckily, several pioneering startups and university research projects are rising to these challenges.

A sophisticated food allergen detector masquerading as a stylish necklace, a nifty clip-on airborne allergen tracker, and a wearable that can sense a severe allergic reaction and deliver life saving treatment are three of the exciting innovations that could make a real difference to allergy prevention and treatment.

Lab on a necklace

The first truly wearable allergen-detecting device is currently in the pipeline, with an estimated launch date in 2018. The brainchild of Yale University graduate Abigail Barnes and Dr Joseph BelBruno, a professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, Allergy Amulet is a chic necklace with special powers.

Chemical-based strips are stored in the Amulet and can be used to test for allergens in minutes when the wearer is out and about. The technology is sensitive enough to detect allergen levels down to parts per trillion (PPT), which is well below the minimum EU and FDA guideline for gluten-free labelling (20 parts per million) and a safe threshold for other allergens.

It won't be infallible however. The strips can only test a representative sample, so there is always the chance that some allergens lurking on the plate of food may be missed. For this reason, Allergy Amulet is intended as an extra line of defence rather than the last word in allergen detection.

While the launch product will only test for peanut allergens (expanding to eight common allergens over time), co-founder Abigail Barnes has told us that her company will eventually be able to tailor Allergy Amulet to an individual's unique allergy profile, with customised strips available that test anything from coriander to soy allergens.

Elsewhere, a venture-backed startup called DOTS Devices is developing an allergen-detecting wearable that rocks patent-pending technology, but the firm is currently in say-absolutely-nothing stealth mode.

Fighting allergens in the air

If you suffer from allergic rhinitis, which involves airborne allergens such as pollen, dust and mould spores, you'll know how much of a nightmare it is to avoid exposure. Cue TZOA. This crowdfunded clip-on environment tracker measures all sorts of things, including pollution levels, humidity, UV, temperature and crucially, airborne allergen particles.

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Google's smart contact lens, which was awarded a patent last year, will offer something similar. The patent states that the lenses, "can sense any number of biological, chemical and/or microbiological features in an environment including...levels of allergens."

Hot on Google's heels, the South Korean copyright authority has just published a patent application filed by Samsung two years ago for similar smart contact lenses, which also boast sensors that can detect airborne allergens such as tree and grass pollen. It could be years before these devices hit the stores however.

Shipping as soon as May, the TZOA clip-on feeds air quality info to a smartphone app which relays the data to the cloud, where it is used to create maps pinpointing allergen and pollution hotspots in the wearer's local area. The wearable can monitor indoor as well as outdoor air quality, and the app offers real-time recommendations such as avoiding a nearby park when the maps indicate high pollen levels, or opening a window if TZOA senses high levels of dust or mould spores indoors.

Like Allergy Amulet, TZOA is sensitive enough to recognise minute particles, in this case down to 10 micrometers (airborne allergens) and 2.5 micrometres (airborne pollution), thanks to state of the art optical laser and photodiode technology.

This ability to detect trace amounts and avoid inaccurate readings is key if tech companies want these wearables to be taken seriously by allergy sufferers and the medical community. "It is important that the devices are researched and tested thoroughly and subject to stringent scientific testing and ongoing monitoring for false positives and so on," says Holly Shaw, nurse advisor for Allergy UK.

Future adrenaline-injecting wearables

Adrenaline delivered as soon after the reaction as possible is the gold-standard treatment for anaphylaxis and severe allergy sufferers tend to carry an injectable 'EpiPen' filled with the drug that they can self-administer in case of emergencies. The design of these pens hasn't changed since the 1980s and many people find them cumbersome to lug around. However all this is set to change.

Allergy specialist Dr Michael Langan has filed a patent for a wearable adrenaline-injecting 'Epibracelet' which could well secure funding sometime soon. A team at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is developing implantable, second skin and strap-on wearables that can sense a severe allergic reaction and instantly deliver a shot of adrenaline.

"Our goal is to develop a reliable device that detects an oncoming anaphylactic episode in its very first stages by continually monitoring critical physiological and biochemical signals," says John Osbourne, a senior engineer at the Wyss Institute and the project's technical lead. "Once a critical threshold is reached, the device would alert caregivers and auto-inject a life-saving dose of adrenaline."

The project began in December and is supported by the KeepSmilin4Abbie Foundation, which was founded by the family of Abbie Benford, a 15-year-old girl from Massachusetts who passed away in 2013 following a severe allergic reaction. Tragically Abbie's life might have been saved had she received adrenaline treatment sooner, which really hits home that this potentially life-saving technology and other similar allergy-related innovations are long-overdue and hopefully we will see much more.

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