Anaphylaxis, the life-threatening reaction that many people with food allergies experience, can be reversed with an injection of epinephrine. But what if the injection comes too late? Every year, around 300,000 children are hospitalized because of food allergy reactions. Quick responses to severe allergic reactions can save lives, and fatalities occur when treatment doesn’t come quickly enough. A new program from Harvard researchers hopes to develop wearable technology that could detect anaphylaxis and automatically inject epinephrine to help save more lives.
What Is Anaphylaxis?
Also known as anaphylactic shock, this is a severe reaction that people with allergies may experience. It is an overreaction of the immune system to an allergen, most commonly food allergens, but also insect stings, medications and even exercise for some people. Not all people with food allergies will experience anaphylaxis, but it is always a possibility.
Anaphylaxis occurs quickly and its symptoms include skin rashes, hives, swelling in the throat, mouth and face, dizziness, fainting, a weak and quick pulse, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and difficulty breathing. Epinephrine can reverse the reaction, but it must be administered quickly. If it is not treated quickly, anaphylaxis is fatal. Food allergies are more common in children than adults, and so anaphylaxis is a bigger concern for children and teens.
A Tragic Death and a New Hope
In 2013, a 15-year-old girl named Abbie Benford died in the hospital after an allergic reaction to a food allergen. Abbie and her family and friends had done everything right to prevent this tragic outcome. They were educated about her food allergy; they knew what anaphylaxis symptoms looked like; they knew how to use an epinephrine auto injector; and they had injectors on hand in all places Abbie spent time. Unfortunately, Abbie’s anaphylaxis progressed so quickly that she could not be saved, even with emergency treatment.
The Benford family had to endure this tragic loss, but they committed to making a difference for other children with severe food allergies. They started the KeepSmilin4Abbie Foundation to fund research, to spread awareness and to support families living with food allergies while honoring the memory of young Abbie. Together with Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the foundation hopes to save lives with early detection of anaphylaxis leading to early treatment.
Wearable Technology and Early Detection of Anaphylaxis
With a donation from KeepSmilin4Abbie, the Wyss Institute is working on the development of a new wearable device that could detect the earliest symptoms of anaphylaxis, earlier than a person can see or feel the signs that the reaction is beginning. For the person experiencing anaphylaxis, it isn’t always possible to react and to use the auto injector. This person may need to rely on those around them to recognize the signs and help him or her get an injection. Recognizing the signs is subjective and naturally slow. If a device could detect the signs faster, an injection could be given sooner and save the life of the person having the reaction.
The Wyss Institute is a unique group of researchers, both touched by Abbie Benford’s story and dedicated to developing devices and other materials that help treat illnesses and solve other problems. The researchers at Wyss use nature itself to design and create these devices. They take inspiration from nature by, for example, designing robots that fly using the same physical principles of flying insects, or mimicking the way lungs expand to develop artificial organs.
The researchers involved in the anaphylaxis project hope to use these principles to develop their wearable technology. The program is new, but those working on it have high hopes that through innovation and collaboration they can create the device that will save the lives of young people like Abbie and prevent future tragedies.