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Nanoparticles Built to Detect, Measure Peanut Allergy

Peanuts

(National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA)

27 June 2017. A chemical engineering team developed a system with nanoscale particles to better detect and diagnose the severity of peanut allergies. Researchers from University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana describe their technology in the 21 June issue of the journal Scientific Reports.

Allergies to peanuts and other foods are a result of the body’s immune system misinterpreting certain foods as pathogens, and responding by the release of histamines, chemicals in the body causing the allergy symptoms. In most cases, the symptoms are mild, such as runny nose and itching, but people with peanut allergies face a real and elevated risk of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition constricting airways, swelling the throat, and causing a sharp drop in blood pressure. Food Allergy Research and Education says some 15 million people in the U.S. and 17 million people in Europe have a food allergy, with growing numbers of people reporting an allergy.

Researchers from the chemical engineering lab of Basar Bilgicer at Notre Dame are seeking better tools to diagnose peanut allergies, particularly the severity of the condition. Current diagnostics like the skin-prick test use allergens to stimulate a controlled immune response, while other tests like oral food challenges ask individuals to eat increasing amounts of the suspected allergens until reactions occur. Both types of tests run risks of discomfort, and in the case of the oral food challenge, severe responses leading to anaphylactic shock. While the tests may detect allergies, they provide little data on the severity of the allergies, and many parents are uncomfortable about exposing their children to their associated risks.

Bilgicer and colleagues designed techniques to detect peanut allergies, but also determine their severity, from blood samples. The researchers use nanoscale particles — 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter — called nanoallergens that resemble the 8 key epitopes, or binding regions of a leading allergen affecting some 90 percent of individuals with life-threatening peanut allergies. These binding regions are the targets of antibodies in the immune system that cause the allergic reactions. The nanoparticles are made from lipids, or natural oils, configured into round sacs called liposomes, with peptides representing the different epitopes on their surface.

The team tested the nanoallergens with serum, the component in blood containing immune systems cells, from an individual with a peanut allergy. An immunology test called Elisa, short for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, identified the specific epitope on the immune system cells, which were verified with nanoallergens expressing the same epitope.

The researchers then used the nanoallergens to measure the severity of the allergy, again with serum samples from a person with a peanut allergy. The team measured enzymes released during allergic reactions when immune system cells respond to allergens, then associated the specific enzymes to the individual epitopes on the nanoallergens. The results show the nanoallergen system can measure the severity of immune system reactions by the quantity of enzymes released, as well as highlight the individual epitopes in the allergic reaction, giving a more detailed profile of the allergy.

Bilgicer takes part in Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, a university initiative investigating a range of health-related technologies, leading to a number of spin-off enterprises. He plans to advance the nanoallergen technology further with larger samples of allergy patients and extend it to related allergies. “We are currently working with allergy specialist clinicians for further testing and verification of the diagnostic tool using a larger patient population,” says  Bilgicer in a university statement. “Ultimately, our vision is to take this technology and make it available to all people who suffer from food allergies.”

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