The allergy detector has been heralded as a major breakthrough in the management of food allergies, which affect one in 20 Irish children.
Current tests for food allergies are time consuming, expensive and often quite stressful for children. They can also increase the risk of the patient suffering anaphylaxis — a serious allergic reaction which can be life-threatening. There is also a long waiting list for tests because of the lack of specialist consultants.
However, the Cork- Southampton calculator, developed by Cork researchers Dr Audrey Dunn Galvin and Professor Jonathan Hourihane of the department of paediatrics and child health, delivers an instant 96% accuracy rate compared to current methods that are 61%-81% accurate.
Dr Dunn Galvin said the researchers have devised a highly accurate, allergen- specific algorithms for each of the most common food allergies — cow’s milk, egg and peanuts.
“We took the other means of testing food allergies — skin-prick test and blood test — and combined them with other variables such as the child’s sex, age and symptoms to create a mathematical equation which can, in seconds, give the probability of the child having a food allergy.”
From this analysis, the researchers developed an effective prediction model, a “calculator” of a positive food challenge that was a more accurate predictor than individual allergy tests.
“We tested the calculator in three phases — using data from Southampton University, then on data from the department of paediatrics and child health at UCC and finally a blind test where we selected children that were going to present to the department, and found the results to be very accurate.”
Dr Dunn Galvin said while approximately 5% of children suffer from food allergies, young children can find the normal food allergy tests quite stressful.
She said the new calculator — which will be available online for healthcare professionals — will improve the quality of life for young patients and will reduce the cost of food allergy tests significantly.
“This test will be very reasonably priced and will take a lot of the distress out of the process, even just by delaying a challenge until the odds of passing it improve over time — which is the norm. It also gives an indication of the severity of an allergy by predicting that the child is 90% likely to suffer from an allergy or somewhere in the region of 50%, indicating a milder allergy.”
She said the initial focus was on the three major allergies but there are plans to further develop the calculator to include other major food allergies including fish, shellfish and nuts.
Kevin Dalton, of UCC’s office of technology transfer, said the patented diagnostic is very reliable and should offer certainty for many doctors treating children with food allergies: “We foresee a commercial product being launched this year resulting in better patient care and substantial savings for the healthcare service.”