Why you should care
Because the next time someone with a severe allergy loses consciousness, you might get robotic instructions on how to save them.
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Jay Oberle managed to survive a lengthy battle with a pulmonary embolism that resulted in multiple lung surgeries. But a few years ago he was nearly done in by the sting of a bee. It was Thanksgiving, and the 60-year-old had just arrived at mom’s house when on his neck it felt “like somebody pinching your skin with their fingernails and not letting go.” Oberle, who has an anaphylactic allergy to bee stings, had forgotten his EpiPen at home, and the pain was growing worse.
“I started to swell up, and my body got covered with a rash,” says Oberle, who may not have been around to tell his story if his mother’s house wasn’t just 15 minutes from a hospital. There, he got a shot of epinephrine, the same ingredient found in an EpiPen that keeps a patient’s airway open following exposure to an allergen.
In the 25 years since the EpiPen was invented, the tubelike device with a short needle sticking out of one end remains one of the only treatments available for severe allergic reactions. And it’s remained pretty much the same since it first came out, aside from a few redesigns. While an EpiPen can be a lifesaver for the 1 in 50 who are at risk for anaphylaxis — that acute allergic reaction Oberle suffered — there remains no known cure. Indeed, an estimated 700 deaths in the U.S. alone result from allergic reactions annually.
If it’s time to panic and the user lets go of the button or falls unconscious, then the case triggers a warning.
Yet folks like Oberle are finding hope amid new technologies that may ease some of the hyperanxiety over anaphylaxis, not to mention the dependence on loved ones or strangers to stab them in the thigh (where the EpiPen is supposed to be administered). One company recently rolled out some high-tech tools that help ensure people always have their epinephrine shot on hand or alert a network of loved ones and medics whenever an EpiPen gets used, while another is finding ways to boost patients’ tolerance to the allergen itself.
Walked out the door but forgot your EpiPen? Keeping it in a Veta case means your smartphone will get a notification from an application, while your EpiPen case will flash and beep (“Over here!”) once you activate that feature. Another alert tells someone when the expiry date of the EpiPen is nearing. “Epinephrine also needs to be kept at a very specific and narrow temperature range, so we have a sensor to measure the temperature and report it to the user so they can do something about it,” says Alex Leyn, CEO of Aterica Digital Health, the Canadian startup behind the case.
Then there are more serious scenarios. The case can ping emergency responders (or mom) whenever the medication gets used. If someone particularly allergic to, say, peanuts takes a bite of the wrong chocolate bar, they can hit an emergency standby button, which can be deactivated if it’s a false alarm. If it’s time to panic and the user lets go of the button or falls unconscious, then the case triggers a warning to a private network — and blares to bystanders that there is a medical emergency. For globe-trotters, there’s even an option to add a second language. The $59 case, which can house a couple of EpiPen shots, is currently only available for preorder.
Over in France, a small circular patch being tested by DBV Technologies has the potential to increase immunity to anaphylactic allergens. The Viaskin patch exposes an allergen’s powder to the skin in a new form of immunotherapy. After spending one year exposing test subjects who had anaphylactic allergies to peanuts with the patch — each containing one of four different dosages — a majority of the patients who received a particular dosage, 250 micrograms, were able to tolerate 10 times more exposure without suffering a reaction. “It’s very encouraging,” says Dr. Hugh A. Sampson, a principal investigator of the clinical trial.
Of course, more trials still need to be completed before the patch can be approved for widespread use. In fact, of the 221 patients who were put through the yearlong study, two had to withdraw as a result of irritated skin, while others experienced a reaction of some kind. (“None of the severe or adverse events were related to the use of this patch, which gives it a high rating for safety,” says Dr. Sampson.)
Meanwhile, that fancy-shmancy Veta case could prove too expensive or complicated for some. It’s also reliant on your smartphone to send location data, so the case alone won’t necessarily do you any good if you want to be found. Oberle, though, says he’s excited about not having a potential brush with death each time he forgets to bring an EpiPen with him. Let’s just hope, then, that he doesn’t neglect to bring his phone with him as well.