Seasonal Allergies are Nothing to Sneeze at

by Kim Moldofsky, The Maker Mom

On a recent spring walk with my dog, Tesla, we passed budding trees, fragrant lilac bushes, and lush lawns carpeted in dandelions. As much as we both enjoyed the sights and sounds of the neighborhood, my nose was stuffy and my eyes were red and itchy from seasonal allergies. Allergies cast a long, dark shadow on an otherwise bright, hopeful time of year.

Tesla, who suffers from late summer allergies, and I are not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year. And I’m pretty sure that number doesn’t include canine companions. If you’ve even taken a close look at pollen, it’s no surprise that it irritates our sensitive membranes. 

Although seasonal allergies are common, chance are you know someone impacted by food allergies or maybe bee stings, too. The study of allergies can lead one to explore many branches of science. For example:

  • Botany to understand the role of pollen in plant reproduction
  • Meteorology to understand how weather conditions impact the amount of and the timing of pollen release
  • Climatology to explore how broad changes impact the grasses, flowers and trees that release allergenic pollens

And, of course, many branches of medicine, including:

  • Physiology, the study of how our bodies work
  • Immunology, the study of immune systems

In 2015, a young scientist, Iris Gupta, thought it would be helpful to try and stop allergies “at the source.” Iris entered the Young Scientist Challenge as a 6th grader. She took the idea of allergen immunotherapy up a notch. Or actually down several notches to the nano level.

Immunotherapy is a form of allergy treatment and prevention that is typically tried by people with seasonal, insect sting, or pet allergies. It’s a long process; one that can take several years to complete. Immunotherapy begins with weekly injections of the offending allergen(s), the very thing a person is allergic to. Over time, the body becomes desensitized to the substance, so that they no longer produce a response when the allergens are encountered.

Iris hypothesized that breathing or injecting gold nanoparticles would cause them to bond onto cells that create allergic reactions, blocking the spaces that might otherwise be available to allergens. Without a place to bond, the allergens go unrecognized by the body, averting a reaction. She used math models to determine that 20nm gold particles had the best chance of preventing the sniffling and sneezing reactions that make life miserable.

Although a Finalist, Iris ultimately placed fourth. That still provided her with an opportunity to work with a 3M mentor scientist and participate in a VIP experience at 3M headquarters. And because allergies are familiar to so many of us, her idea sparked a lot of attention from the media. She was interview by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and her work was recognized in Business InsiderThe Washington Post, and other outlets.

What common problem can the young scientists in your class room solve?