People with life-threatening allergies live in constant fear of coming into contact with deadly allergens. Researchers estimate that about 32 million Americans have food allergies, with the most severe being milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.
"It is important to understand that just several years ago, this would not have been possible."
Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room, and 200,000 people in the U.S. require emergency medical care each year for allergic reactions, according to Food Allergy Research and Education.
But what if there was a way you could easily detect if something you were about to eat contains any harmful allergens? Thanks to Israeli scientists, this will soon be the case — at least for peanuts. The team has been working to develop a handheld device called Allerguard, which analyzes the vapors in your meal and can detect allergens in 30 seconds.
Leapsmag spoke with the founder and CTO of Allerguard, Guy Ayal, about the groundbreaking technology, how it works, and when it will be available to purchase.
What prompted you to create this device? Do you have a personal connection with severe food allergies?
Guy Ayal: My eldest daughter's best friend suffers from a severe food allergy, and I experienced first-hand the effect it has on the person and their immediate surroundings. Most notable for me was the effect on the quality of life – the experience of living in constant fear. Everything we do at Allerguard is basically to alleviate some of that fear.
How exactly does the device work?
The device is built on two main pillars. The first is the nano-chemical stage, in which we developed specially attuned nanoparticles that selectively adhere only to the specific molecules that we are looking for. Those molecules, once bound to the nanoparticles, induce a change in their electrical behavior, which is measured and analyzed by the second main pillar -- highly advanced machine learning algorithms, which can surmise which molecules were collected, and thus whether or not peanuts (or in the future, other allergens) were detected.
It is important to understand that just several years ago, this would not have been possible, because both the nano-chemistry, and especially the entire world of machine learning, big data, and what is commonly known as AI only started to exist in the '90s, and reached applicability for handheld devices only in the past few years.
Where are you at in the development process and when will the device be available to consumers?
We have concluded the proof of concept and proof of capability phase, when we demonstrated successful detection of the minimal known clinical amount that may cause the slightest effect in the most severely allergic person – less than 1 mg of peanut (actually it is 0.7 mg). Over the next 18 months will be productization, qualification, and validation of our device, which should be ready to market in the latter half of 2021. The sensor will be available in the U.S., and after a year in Europe and Canada.
The Allerguard was made possible through recent advances in machine learning, big data, and AI.
How much will it cost?
Our target price is about $200 for the device, with a disposable SenseCard that will run for at least a full day and cost about $1. That card is for a specific allergen and will work for multiple scans in a day, not just one time.
[At a later stage, the company will have sensors for other allergens like tree nuts, eggs, and milk, and they'll develop a multi-SenseCard that works for a few allergens at once.]
Are there any other devices on the market that do something similar to Allerguard?
No other devices are even close to supplying the level of service that we promise. All known methods for allergen detection rely on sampling of the food, which is a viable solution for homogenous foodstuffs, such as a factory testing their raw ingredients, but not for something as heterogenous as an actual dish – especially not for solid allergens such as peanuts, treenuts, or sesame.
If there is a single peanut in your plate, and you sample from anywhere on that plate which is not where that peanut is located, you will find that your sample is perfectly clean – because it is. But the dish is not. That dish is a death trap for an allergic person. Allerguard is the only suggested solution that could indeed detect that peanut, no matter where in that plate it is hiding.
Anything else readers should know?
Our first-generation product will be for peanuts only. You have to understand, we are still a start-up company, and if we don't concentrate our limited resources to one specific goal, we will not be able to achieve anything at all. Once we are ready to market our first device, the peanut detector, we will be able to start the R&D for the 2nd product, which will be for another allergen – most likely tree nuts and/or sesame, but that will probably be in debate until we actually start it.
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.