You only have to do a quick internet search (or unfortunately these days, simply open a newspaper) to see that undeclared food allergens are causing unimaginable suffering and death worldwide. Young allergic people (and people of all ages) are being put at risk every time they eat out. Although it may seem like more of these tragedies are occurring now than ever before, I think this is likely related to the rise of novel technologies and social media which gives a voice to the victims/families of victims allowing them to inform the rest of us of the responsible parties involved. In the wake of many recent allergen related tragedies, individuals no longer feel that they can trust food manufacturers and restaurants to provide them with a safe dining experience. I know that if I had a severe food allergy, I would be terrified every-time I consumed something prepared by somebody else. This is extremely un-fair and it furthers burdens people who already have to constantly be careful with what they eat.
Despite many companies and restaurants claiming to have good allergen management and clean in place procedures, unfortunately these can and do fall short. When human lives are on the line this is unacceptable. That is why my PhD is working to develop a test that allows consumers to take back some control in their food safety. I already have developed simple ‘pregnancy-test’ style tests that allow for the detection of hazelnut and peanut allergens in biscuits at very low detection levels within a minute with a simple smartphone readout. These work excellently in the lab but of course the lab is not a restaurant. And a trained scientist is not an end-user. This means my next step is more difficult – how can I develop a device that is so intuitive that consumers can use it themselves to extract the relevant allergens from foods so that they can detect these harmful proteins? I need to design something that integrates sample preparation (breaking apart the food and using a solution to remove the relevant allergens from the food) with a mechanism to deliver my sample to my test and on top of this I need a user-friendly interface so that the consumer can easily read and understand the results via smartphone. That is where my current secondment to Linköping University in Sweden comes into the mix.
This past month I have been working in Sweden learning how to use computer aided design (CAD) and 3D-printing to create prototypes for this integrated sample preparation and detection (in addition to a number of other things). This has taken me outside of my comfort zone as I have had develop skills in areas that are completely alien to me. Although the work has been taxing and probably the steepest learning curve of my PhD so far – it has also been tremendously rewarding. It is nice to think that although my own work has been challenging, this is all to make the device easier to use for the end-user. It is often the simplest devices or systems that take the longest to design and develop. 3D-printing offers the chance to make multiple iterations of prototypes, with each design improving on features from the previous version. The secondment so far has given me an insight into the world of product design and a lot of what I have learned so far has helped me understand the consumer perspective more. It has also helped me see some of the pressures that commercial companies developing such consumer devices face. Although there is a long way to go, I am hopeful that in the future we will have truly user-friendly options for consumers to test for the presence of multiple allergens within their foods allowing these consumers to regain some control over what they eat.