Birkeskov - Instapatch

Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Allergies?

Thursday 14 Jun 18


Stephan Sylvest Keller
Associate Professor
DTU Nanolab
+45 45 25 58 46

What is allergy?

Allergy is an abnormal reaction by the body’s immune system to a harmless substance (also called an allergen). The immune system is our body’s watchdog, and protects us against harmful substances such as bacteria and viruses. An allergic reaction happens because the immune system makes a mistake, and has become hypersensitive to specific allergens, which non-allergic persons tolerate without any problems.

Most common allergens include: Cat, dog, horse, birch, grass, mugwort, house-dust mite and mould.

(Sources: European Academy of Allergy & Clinical Immunology, Astma-allergi Danmark, Klinik for Allergi, Gentofte Hospital

About the project

The Instapatch project is funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF) with 5.6 MDKK.

The project will run for 3.5 years (2018-2022), and includes the following partners: DTU Nanotech, DTU Food, Gentofte Hospital, Malmö University and Cardiff University.

In the future you can get tested by applying an adhesive plaster

Sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose and fatigue – symptoms that more and more people experience especially in the springtime. In fact, allergy accounts for as much as 2.3 million ineffective working days, and more than 250,000 days where employees reported in sick in Denmark alone (Astma-Allergi Danmark). Although these numbers are from 2014, the number of allergy-affected persons have only seemed to increase since, indicating the impact may be even higher today.

Other than being annoying and irritating, untreated hay fever symptoms can actually lead to asthma, and in severe cases allergy can be life threatening. For example if a peanut-allergic person accidentally eats peanuts, he can go into anaphylactic or allergic shock, and then quick treatment is of utmost importance.

So getting the right diagnosis is important.

A Band-Aid for allergy testing

Associate Professor Stephan S. Keller will lead a group of researchers in the work towards an innovative plaster or patch allergy test in the new project InstaPatch. The idea is that a small patch with incorporated microtechnology will make it possible for doctors to obtain quantitative measurements of a patient’s allergic response. It will also be possible to test for a much larger number of different allergies in one go, and finally the patch will be less uncomfortable for the patient compared to today’s test methods.

This would not only make the diagnosis more accurate, but also provide more knowledge to the medical society about allergy and our body.

Stephan and his colleagues will take departure in some of the technologies that has previously been developed at DTU, but the actual technology in the InstaPatch project cannot yet be revealed, because patent processes are ongoing. The researchers strive towards having a commercial product available in 2022.

The skin prick test – a strong contender

Today, the skin prick test is the most common diagnostics tool for allergy testing. It is simple and easily accessible, and not least relatively cheap. A healthcare professional injects a very small amount of allergen into the skin with a needle. After a few minutes, the skin reaction indicates whether or not you suffer from allergy.

A shortcoming of the skin prick test is the inability to measure the degree of allergy in the patient. The results are based on a qualitative estimate by a person. So in order to get an idea of the tolerance level for each patient, it is necessary to go into a much more extensive and expensive ‘provocation test’. Here the patient will spend at least a couple of days in the hospital going through blind tests and being subjected to increasing amounts of the suspected substance to get to know what his or her tolerance level is. Therefore, this type of test is only done for cases of severe allergy.

Associate Professor Bettina Margrethe Jensen, who is also a PI in the Instapatch project, from the Dermatology and Allergy Department at Gentofte Hospital explains that for many patients a skin prick test is sufficient for knowing that they are allergic to for example birch pollen, and that they therefore need to take precautions in the season for birch pollen. The skin prick test also provides a good indication of severe allergy in patients, who need to be referred to additional testing in special clinics. “So the existing test is a hard contender to be up against, as it is known and used throughout the world. But we think that being able to get quantitative results from an allergy test would be very interesting and would provide us with a lot of new knowledge about the body and the allergy field. It may even bring forward new possibilities that we did not know were an option", Bettina Margrethe Jensen adds.

Another drawback of the skin prick test is the limited number of allergies that can be tested for in each sitting. There is the practical matter of how much space you have on the inside of your forearms, where the allergens are injected into the skin. Small children is a patient group that in particularly can benefit from a plaster-allergy-test-solution. They have smaller arms, so it can take a while getting tested for many different types of allergy, and it can also be a quite unpleasant experience to get poked repeatedly with a sharp needle without understanding exactly why.

Working together across professions

The research team includes Gentofte Hospital, where some of Denmark’s leading experts on allergy are located. “Collaboration and discussions with healthcare professionals, who know about the ins and outs of allergies and know the actual problems and challenges that the patients face, has been very valuable for a technology focused engineer as myself”, Stephan says. The same enthusiasm for teaming up with people across scientific and professional fields, people who work with very different things than yourself and think differently than yourself, is also apparent when talking to the healthcare professionals.

All in all there seems to be a consensus in the InstaPatch research team that exciting things happen when different people cross paths, and it is often in this intersection that new knowledge and ideas emerge.

In practical terms for a project like this to happen, it is essential to bring the right people together e.g. make sure that the tech savvy people talk to the medical people to make a device that works and can help patients.

DTU Nanotech will develop the technical parts of the InstaPatch project, DTU Food will be responsible for the in vivo animal testing, and Gentofte Hospital will be assisting with the in vitro testing and clinical evaluation. Finally, collaboration with Malmö University and Cardiff University is also part of the project plan.

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17 FEBRUARY 2019