Posts Tagged peanut alarm

Portable Peanut Detector

Posted by on Saturday, 14 November, 2009



AllergyResearch: Personal Peanut Alarm

Chase has an idea.

He explains that his nephew is allergic to peanuts which, I know, is a VERY bad thing. The slightest granule can do unspeakable things.

I tell him I’m familiar with the problem.

“What,” Chase asks, “if we come up with a cheap, portable instrument that can pick up the presence of nuts in food? Something that could be carried along to a restaurant or a dinner party or to the cafeteria? Could it be done? “

We’re sprawled in the modernistic lobby of Venture Technology which, long time ago, was started by Chase and his partners, Don and Angelo . A few lifetimes later, Venture has exceeded all reasonable expectations. Far as I know, it’s now the biggest contract engineering design firm in New England.

Chase is saying “Why can’t we come up with an instrument that would find even a minute amount of peanuts in a meal? After all, one thing we’re good at is making things small, portable, cheap, and fast. All you gotta do is come up with a foolproof detection scheme.”

My first reaction is “Now THAT’s nuts! Think about the risk of missing a tiny smidgen of the stuff – anaphylactic shock. You’d never get over your guilt.”

“OK. But, for argument’s sake, tell me why it’s a harder problem than some of the other esoteric instruments we’ve made here? Convince me it can’t be done”

I know, immediately, that sticking probes in the food will fail. Too much risk of missing something. But how else could we solve the problem?

Somehow, a detector’s gotta deal with the food (the about-to-be-eaten meal) “as a whole”. If there’s nuttiness in there ANYWHERE, the detector has to “know”.

We talked about “electronic noses” which are used for detecting explosives. Could an “E-nose” sniff out a nut buried in lamb stew or pie crust?

It wasn’t long till we dragged dog noses into the discussion.

I told him that I had read somewhere that a bloodhound can detect a day old “shoe print” by smelling the faint odor of foot sweat THAT HAS PENETRATED (seriously) THE SOLE OF A SHOE!

Chase pointed out that the sensitivity of a bloodhound’s nose is 1000 times greater than it needs for most tracking activities. So could a dog’s amazing nose smell a nut fragment in a meal? “And if it could, does that mean an instrument – an “E-nose” – would work?

We agreed that I would look into it which, these days, means Googling your brains out.

Which I did.

Which led me to and to Sharon Perry who breeds dogs for exactly this purpose at the Southern Star Ranch in Texas.

A few days later, we gave Sharon a call.

An avid Bass fishing enthusiast (like Chase), Sharon and Chase did some telephonic bonding about fishing while I muffled my snores. Eventually, we got back to her Peanut Dogs. We learned that they aren’t just GOOD. They’re perfect. I kept trying to trip her up with questions about “false positives” and “false negatives” but that only works when a thing’s a little bit wrong one way or the other.

In fact, Sharon seemed shocked by my questions and seemed anxious for me to understand the consequences of being wrong where peanuts and kids are involved. Mistakes would be intolerable, she said (rightly). She insisted that her trained dogs HAVE to be relied on with complete confidence.

This is what we wanted to hear.

Excited, we figured it was time to contact our local “nose guy”.

Joel White’s a neuroscientist at Tufts University School Of Medicine as well as a founder of Cogniscent, Inc. which develops applications for its proprietary E-nose.

In fact, we did MORE than contact him. We met, we discussed, we phoned, we considered, and we strategized. And here’s how the project stands at this point.


We either have to find a particularly lucid Peanut Dog and ask how it does the trick or we do our own study. Mind you, a dog’s nose is more sensitive than most of the equipment found in a lab.

We do know the chemistry of peanuts and which compounds the dogs might be sniffing. And, with the help of a chemist, I suppose we could work out the steps/procedures needed to design a test protocol to narrow it down with the kind of precision necessary for an electronic nose project.


According to Joel, we’re looking at a 3 to 5 year project and over a million dollars in cost. That’s a big ixnay for Chase and his partners who have way too many ongoing projects for clients, to take on such an ambitious and unfunded project.Their experience is in private consulting and they’re not in the business of chasing and administering government grants. And I couldn’t convince them to change their ways.

So we’re stuck.

It’s a good idea for someone.

What are your thoughts?

Any ideas for carrying on this worthy project? Or a way to fund it?

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