Harvard hopes to build wearable tech for detecting, treating allergy attacks

A family photo of Abbie Benford, a Hopkinton girl who died of allergies.
A family photo of Abbie Benford, a Hopkinton girl who died of allergies.

People who suffer from serious allergies — to foods such as peanuts or to bee stings, say — often have to rely on the help of friends, family, and bystanders who can notice their distress and administer lifesaving medication. That medication, typically delivered through an epinephrine-injection device called an EpiPen, needs to be carried with them at all times.

A group of Harvard researchers, supported by the family of one Massachusetts teenager who lost her life to an allergic reaction, has announced a new project to one day turn those emergency adrenaline shots into an automatic injection device that people wear on their bodies. While a marketable solution is likely still years away, scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering think advances in wearable tech could give them a head start on the ambitious project.

Reactions to food allergies result in more than 200,000 emergency room visits each year, according to Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to allergy research.

“The combination of the growing need and the technology development makes it ripe for us to be able to do this,” institute engineer John Osborne said.

The work is being supported by gifts from the KeepSmilin4Abbie Foundation, founded by the family of Abbie Benford, a Hopkinton girl who died two years ago at age 15 from food allergy complications.

Benford’s family and friends were well-versed in how to give her epinephrine injections, but her reaction progressed too quickly for it to be successfully treated, her family said. The foundation launched the project with a $25,000 donation this month, and expects to make a gift of $50,000 in the coming weeks.

Among the project’s goals is developing sensors that could give a quicker warning that someone is suffering a severe attack, known as anaphylaxis. Researchers plan to evaluate patches, strapped-on gadgets, or even implantable devices that could monitor the blood or other signals from the body.

Those machines, they think, could help cut through the fear and confusion spawned by anaphylactic shock.

“One thing that people do is they downplay it — denial is a coping mechanism,” Osborne said. “They try to pretend it’s not happening, and sometimes they’ll just try to take a Benadryl and sit down and ride through it, and that’s dangerous.”

Eventually, the project hopes to connect detection systems with auto-injection wearables. But that’s much further down the road.

“We don’t know exactly how it’s going to look yet. It’s a long-term project, but we hope to be there in not too long and get something out to the market,” Osborne said.