BOSTON (CBS) – Clare Maloney-Kolenberg is high school junior from Winchester who is looking forward to traveling to Spain on an exchange program with her Spanish class.
But that excitement is coupled with a bit of anxiety due to her food allergies. “I’m allergic to tree nuts, peanuts and sesame,” she told WBZ-TV.
It’s a list that can make dining out a bit dicey, even in familiar restaurants near home. But once you add unfamiliar foods and a language barrier, that increases the odds of a reaction.
That’s exactly what happened when Clare ordered ice cream on a trip to Germany with her family.
“All of a sudden my throat started to feel tingly,” she explained. “There was a miscommunication, I guess.”
It’s that communication breakdown that scientists at a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital are trying to avoid by giving people the power to test their own food right at the table.
“We believe that down the line it could be life-changing,” explained Dr. Ralph Weissleder who heads up the lab.
Using technology that was originally developed to detect cancer in blood samples, the team has created a device that can also detect a number of different food allergies.
When a small bit of food is mixed with another chemical and placed on a test strip, the biological information is transformed into electrical signals that are read by the device. If it detects an allergy, the device displays a symbol that alerts the user that the food is not safe to eat.
“We have taken it to some restaurants,” explained Dr. Weissleder. “We have tested gluten-free foods that were actually not gluten-free.”
Clare loves the idea of not having to blindly trust a food service worker like the one in Germany who didn’t understand her allergies.
“It’s pretty scary because you put your life in their hands,” she said.
The Mass General scientists are still working on making a prototype that simplifies the testing process and makes the device small enough to fit on a key chain. They hope to have something on the market within two years.