Nutty affairs

Nutty affairs

Peanut allergies can drive you nuts
December 2, 2003

For anyone who's allergic to the seemingly innocent snack food, the task of scouring ingredient labels on food packages can be a maddening yet necessary job. Eat the wrong cookie, lick the wrong ice cream, or even just whiff the wrong slab of chocolate and you're off on an unscheduled trip to the emergency room.

Adele Nguyen and Alexander Tomkins feel your pain. That's why the two students from Gloucester High School in Ottawa are coming to the rescue. How? By developing a home allergy test to detect the presence of peanuts in foods.

Although peanut allergies have plagued many people for quite some time, it's only in the last 10 to 15 years that the proteins responsible for this reaction have been identified. As part of their research into the problem, Adele and Alexander have taken a methodical approach. Careful study of the mechanism of allergic reactions in humans to peanuts was the first step. Armed with the knowledge of the highly specific interactions between antigens (the substance that provokes an allergic reaction) and the antibodies that the human body creates to ward off these substances, the pair is laying the foundation for their work.

The students are researching current industrial tests that detect the presence of peanuts in food and in food preparation equipment. After careful consideration, they have devised a way to simplify the current methods used to detect traces of peanuts, and to speed up the process and make it more user-friendly. Their goal is to create a test that's fast, accurate, economical, and easy to use and read.

Just by observing the working methods, it's clear to see that Adele and Alexander make a great team. In fact, teamwork is an essential part of scientific research according to Adele. To achieve their objective, the pair sought the help of an extended research team that included professional researchers who mentored them in the science, and the biotech industry who provided them with a $200 grant to begin their project and even provided some of the material free of charge. Their team approach paid off. They have succeeded in devising a simplified and reliable home-style test that only takes 30 minutes compared to the industrial test, which takes 4 hours. The Nutty Affairs Sandwich Enzyme-Linked Immunoabsorbent Assay (ELISA) Test was born.

ELISA is called a "sandwich assay" because of the layering of different chemicals that bind to the different proteins, react with them, and eventually evoke a colour change (a reaction to the antibody-antigen interaction) that is easily detected. Adele and Alexander explain that a fundamental part of the human body's reaction to foreign substances, and forming the foundation for allergic responses, is the extremely specific interaction between antigens and antibodies. Antibodies are "Y" shaped immune system-related proteins. The amino acid sequence in the tips of the "Y" varies greatly among different antibodies. This variable region, which gives the antibody its specificity for binding antigens, forms an opening that surrounds one unique structure on the antigen. This lock-and-key relationship is specific and permits this test to be simple, accurate, and unambiguous.

So how does ELISA work? A food sample is first mixed and mashed in some water. A few drops of the mixture are put on a special paper that binds any proteins in the water. Once captured on this special nitrocellulose absorbent paper, any peanut antigens in the sample react with the antibodies. After the reaction is complete, the paper is washed to ensure that any unbound antibodies are rinsed away. A colour reagent is added and…presto! A blue colour means the antibodies have detected peanuts. No colour means the food is peanut-free.

Adele and Alexander's project won them seven prizes at the Ottawa Regional Science Fair including "Senior Category Winner" for the Biotechnology Division. Nutty Affairs took first place in the Aventis Biotechnology Challenge in Eastern Ontario 2002 and netted the young researchers a chance to be a part of the BioGENEius/ABC National Competition where they placed third. This last national-level competition was held at BIO2002 in Toronto, a biotech industry conference with over 15,000 delegates from 28 countries. Not surprisingly, Adele and Alexander's work also made an impact on those attending the conference; many of the delegates were keen to meet the two students and discuss the science and potential of their test.

For now, however, all that will have to wait while the students concentrate on their studies. Adele is busy studying Biopharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Ottawa, after a summer spent as a research assistant at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre. She credits Nutty Affairs with opening her eyes to what opportunities there are in research and for teaching her how to test a hypothesis, how to pipette, and how to meet challenges-all essential survival skills for university:

Alexander, on the other hand, is intrigued by proteomics, a field that he describes as a "cool fusion of biology, computers, physics, and highly advanced instrumentation." Perhaps his engineering studies at Carleton University will lead him to a research career as well. Certainly, his summer spent as a research assistant at the National Research Council has given him a thirst for exploring the worlds of engineering, science, and research.

So, if in the not-too-distant future you see a home peanut test on the shelf of your local pharmacy just think of Adele and Alexander's sandwich test — and their whole nutty affair!