Like any life-threatening medical condition that affects children, food allergies can traumatize more than just the patient. My wife and I learned this one summer afternoon when our daughter was three years old.
Emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016.
At an ice cream parlor, I gave Samantha a lick of my pistachio cone; within seconds, red blotches erupted on her skin, her lips began to swell, and she complained that her throat felt funny. We rushed her to the nearest emergency room, where a doctor injected her with epinephrine. Explaining that the reaction, known as anaphylaxis, could have been fatal if left unchecked, he advised us to have her tested for nut allergies—and to start carrying an injector of our own.
After an allergist confirmed Sam's vulnerability to tree nuts and peanuts, we figured that keeping her safe would be relatively simple. But food allergies often come in bunches. Over the next year, she wound up back in the ER after eating bread with sesame seeds at an Italian restaurant, and again after slurping buckwheat noodles at our neighborhood Japanese. She hated eggs, so we discovered that (less severe) allergy only when she vomited after eating a variety of products containing them.
In recent years, a growing number of families have had to grapple with such challenges. An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies, or nearly 10 percent of the population—10 times the prevalence reported 35 years ago. The severity of symptoms seems to be increasing, too. According to a study released in January by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a Virginia-based nonprofit, insurance claims for anaphylactic food reactions rose 377 percent in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016.
Because food allergies most commonly emerge in childhood, these trends are largely driven by the young. An insurance-industry study found that emergency room visits for anaphylaxis in children more than doubled from 2010 to 2016. Peanut allergies, once rare, tripled in kids between 1997 and 2008. "The first year, it was 1 in 250," says Scott Sicherer, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, who led that study. "When we did the next round of research, in 2002, it was 1 in 125. I thought there must be a mistake. But by 2008, it was 1 in 70."
The forces behind these dire statistics—as well as similar numbers throughout the developed world—have yet to be positively identified. But the leading suspects are elements of our modern lifestyle that can throw the immune system out of whack, prompting potentially deadly overreactions to harmless proteins. Although parents can take a few steps that might lessen their children's risk, societal changes may be needed to brighten the larger epidemiological picture.
Meanwhile, scientists are racing to develop therapies that can induce patients' hyped-up immune defenses to chill. And lately, they've made some big strides toward that goal.
A Variety of Culprits
In the United States, about 90 percent of allergic reactions come from eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. The list varies from country to country, depending on dietary customs, but what the trigger foods all have in common is proteins that can survive breakdown in the stomach and enter the bloodstream more or less intact.
"When we were kids, we played in the dirt. Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."
A food allergy results from a chain of biochemical misunderstandings. The first time the immune system encounters an allergen (as a protein that triggers an allergy is known), it mistakes the substance for a hostile invader—perhaps a parasite with a similar molecular profile. In response, it produces an antibody called immunoglobin E (IgE), which is designed to bind to a specific protein and flag it for attack. These antibodies circulate through the bloodstream and attach to immune-system foot soldiers known as mast cells and basophils, which congregate in the nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.
The next time the person is exposed to the allergen, the IgE antibodies signal the warrior cells to blast the intruder with histamines and other chemical weapons. Tissues in the affected areas swell and leak fluid; blood pressure may fall. Depending on the strength of the reaction, collateral damage to the patient can range from unpleasant—itching, runny nose, nausea—to catastrophic.
This kind of immunological glitchiness runs in families. Genome-wide association studies have identified a dozen genes linked to allergies of all types, and twin studies suggest that about 80 percent of the risk of food allergies is heritable. But why one family member shows symptoms while another doesn't remains unknown. Nor can genetics explain why food allergy rates have skyrocketed in such a brief period. For that, we must turn to the environment.
First, it's important to note that rates of all allergies are rising—including skin and respiratory afflictions—though none as rapidly or with as much risk of anaphylaxis as those involving food. The takeoff was already underway in the late 1980s, when British epidemiologist David P. Strachan found that children in larger households had fewer instances of hay fever. The reason, he suggested, was that their immune systems were strengthened by exposure to their siblings' germs. Since then, other researchers have discerned more evidence for Strachan's "hygiene hypothesis": higher rates of allergy (as well as autoimmune disorders) in cities versus rural areas, in industrialized countries versus developing ones, in lab animals raised under sterile conditions versus those exposed to germs.
Fending off a variety of pathogens, experts theorize, helps train the immune system to better distinguish friend from foe, and to respond to threats in a more nuanced manner. In an era of increasing urbanization, shrinking family sizes, and more sheltered lifestyles, such conditioning may be harder to come by. "When we were kids, we played in the dirt," observes Cathryn R. Nagler, a professor and food allergy researcher at the University of Chicago. "Today, children tend to be on their screens, inside sealed buildings."
But other factors may be driving the allergy epidemic as well. More time indoors, for example, means less exposure to sunlight, which can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D—a nutrient crucial to immune system regulation. The growing popularity of processed foods filled with refined fats and sugars may play a role, along with rising rates of obesity, by promoting tissue inflammation that could increase some people's risk of immunological mayhem. And the surge in allergies also correlates with several trends that may be altering the human microbiome, the community of microbes (including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, among others) that inhabits our guts, skin, and bodily orifices.
The microbiome connection may be particularly relevant to food allergies. In 2014, a team led by Nagler published a landmark study showing that Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against these allergies. When the researchers fed peanut allergens to germ-free mice (born and raised in sterile conditions) and to mice treated with antibiotics as newborns (reducing their gut bacteria), the animals showed a strong immunological response. This sensitization could be reversed, however, by reintroducing Clostridia—but not another class of bacteria, Bacteroides—into the mice. Further experiments revealed that Clostridia caused immune cells to produce high levels of interleukin-22 (IL-22), a signaling molecule known to decrease the permeability of the intestinal lining.
"In simple terms," Nagler says, "what we found is that these bacteria prevent food allergens from gaining access to the blood in an intact form that elicits an allergic reaction."
A growing body of evidence suggests that our eating habits are throwing our gut microbiota off-balance, in part by depriving helpful species of the dietary fiber they feed on. Our increasing exposure to antibiotics and antimicrobial compounds may be harming our beneficial bugs as well. These depletions could affect kids from the moment they enter the world: Because babies are seeded with their mothers' microbiota as they pass through the birth canal, they may be inheriting a less diverse microbiome than did previous generations. And the rising rate of caesarian deliveries may be further depriving our children of the bugs they need.
On expert suggests two measures worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics.
So which culprit is most responsible for the food allergy upsurge? "The illnesses that we're measuring are complex," says Sicherer. "There are multiple genetic inputs, which interact with one another, and there are multiple environmental inputs, which interact with each other and with the genes. There's not one single thing that's causing this. It's a conglomeration."
What Parents Can Do
For anyone hoping to reduce their child's or their own odds of developing a food allergy (rates of adult onset are also increasing), the current state of science offers few guideposts. As with many other areas of health research, it's hard to know when the data is solid enough to warrant a particular course of action. A case in point: the American Academy of Pediatrics once recommended that children at risk of allergy to peanuts (as evidenced by family history, other food allergies, or eczema) wait to eat them until age three; now, the AAP advises those parents to start their babies at four months, citing epidemiological evidence that early exposure may prevent peanut allergies.
And it's all too easy for a layperson to draw mistaken conclusions from media coverage of such research—inferring, for instance, that taking commercially available probiotics might have a protective effect. Unfortunately, says Nagler, none of those products even contain the relevant kind of bacteria.
Although, as a research scientist, she refrains from giving medical advice, Nagler does suggest (based on a large body of academic literature) that two measures are worth a try: increasing consumption of fiber, and reducing use of antimicrobial agents, from antibacterial cleaners to antibiotics. Yet she acknowledges that it's not always possible to avoid the suspected risk factors for food allergies. Sometimes an antibiotic is a lifesaving necessity, for example—and it's tough to avoid exposure to such drugs altogether, due to their use in animal feed and their consequent presence in many foods and in the water supply. If these chemicals are contributing to the food allergy epidemic, protecting ourselves will require action from farmers, doctors, manufacturers, and policymakers.
My family's experience illustrates the limits of healthy lifestyle choices in mitigating allergy risk. My daughter and son were born without C-sections; both were breastfed as well, receiving maximum microbial seeding from their mother. As a family, we eat exemplary diets, and no one could describe our home as excessively clean. Yet one child can't taste nuts, sesame, or buckwheat without becoming dangerously ill. "You can do everything right and still have allergies," says Ian A. Myles, a staff clinician at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "You can do everything wrong and not have allergies. The two groups overlap."
The Latest Science Shows Promise
But while preventing all food allergies is clearly unrealistic, researchers are making remarkable progress in developing better treatments—therapies that, instead of combating symptoms after they've started (like epinephrine or antihistamines), aim to make patients less sensitive to allergens in the first place. One promising approach is oral immunotherapy (OIT), in which patients consume small but slowly increasing amounts of an allergen, gradually reducing their sensitivity. A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that an experimental OIT called AR101, consisting of a standardized peanut powder mixed into food, enabled 67 percent of participants to tolerate a dose equivalent to two peanut kernels—a potential lifesaver if they were accidentally exposed to the real thing.
Because OIT itself can trigger troublesome reactions in some patients, however, it's not for everyone. Another experimental treatment, sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) uses an allergen solution or dissolving tablet placed beneath the tongue; although its results are less robust than OIT's, it seems to generate milder side effects. Epicutaneous immunotherapy (EPIT) avoids the mouth entirely, using a technology similar to a nicotine patch to deliver allergens through the skin. Researchers are also exploring the use of medications known as biologics, aiming to speed up the action of immunotherapies by suppressing IgE or targeting other immune-system molecules.
These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies.
One downside of the immunotherapy approach is that in most cases the allergen must be taken indefinitely to maintain desensitization. To provide a potentially permanent fix, scientists are working on vaccines that use DNA or peptides (protein fragments) from allergens to reset patients' immune systems.
Nagler is attacking the problem from a different angle—one that starts with the microbiome. In a recent study, a follow-up to her peanut-allergy investigation, she and her colleagues found that Clostridia bacteria protect mice against milk allergy as well; they also identified a particular species responsible, known as Anaerostipes caccae. The bugs, the team determined, produce a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, which modulates many immune activities crucial to maintaining a well-sealed gut.
These findings suggest that drugs based on microbial metabolites could help protect vulnerable individuals against a wide range of allergies. Nagler has launched a company, ClostraBio, to develop biotherapeutics based on this notion; she expects its first product, using synthetic butyrate, to be ready for clinical trials within the next two years.
My daughter could well be a candidate for such a medication. Sam, now 15, is a vibrant, resilient kid who handles her allergies with confidence and humor. Thanks to vigilance and luck (on her part as well as her parents'), she hasn't had another food-related ER visit in more than a decade; she's never had to use her Epi-Pen. Still, she says, she would welcome the arrival of a pill that could reduce the danger. "I've learned how to watch out for myself," she says. "But it would be nice not to have to be so careful."
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chis Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. (The time it takes to charge the car varies depending on the solar power, location, and weather.) Its 40-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competitive in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.