An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system responds to something harmless that does not require an immune response. Currently, 1 in 4 people have an allergy, a ratio that was not as high in previous years and is still rising. Based on current projections, in 10 years over half of us will have an allergy. However, the exact reason for this increase is currently unknown. Possible explanations include cleaner lifestyles, a change in pollutant exposure in the environment, changes in the types of crops we grow producing different types of pollens, or a combination of these factors.
Sufferers of seasonal allergies (such as hay fever or asthma) will have experienced how irritating and sometimes unpredictable these allergies can be. With the frequency of seasonal allergies increasing, scientists from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, and School of Computer Science, have joined with the British Society for Immunology and the Royal Society of Biology to set up a project with an aim of achieving a better understanding of seasonal allergies.
In order to collect data for this experiment, the scientists have launched an app named #BritainBreathing, which they are encouraging as many people to join and contribute to scientific research as possible. The research team have not only asked seasonal allergy sufferers within the public to help them collect results, but also used their help to develop the app. Dr Sheena Cruickshank, Senior Lecturer in Immunology at the University of Manchester told The Mancunion: “We have involved the public from the outset with this project in order to not only consult about it but also to co-design the features of the app to ensure it is useful to the allergy community.”
Through the app, participants are asked to enter information about their allergy symptoms, such as details about how their eyes, nose and breathing are affected on a particular time of day in their current location. This data will then be safely shared anonymously with researchers at the University of Manchester, where the research team will collate the data from #BritainBreathing with other available sources – like weather and pollution data – in order to work out what factors are contributing to allergy symptoms.
Aside from helping scientists, the app can also be useful for participants because it can improve individual knowledge about personal allergies through a personal tracking facility on the app. Professor Andy Brass from the School of Computer Science told The Mancunion: “It allows you to reflect upon your own symptoms and therefore help identify what the triggers might be. You can also see whether what you are feeling is common to other people in your area, which might give a clue as to the trigger.”
Overall, it’s a very exciting project that will help a lot of people both short and long term. Dr Lamiece Hassan, Patient and Public Involvement and Governance Research Officer from the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, commented on her involvement in the project. She told The Mancunion: “I’m really excited to be part of such a great team, including our partners at the British Society for Immunology and the Royal Society of Biology. Digital technology is part of our everyday lives now and that brings huge opportunities for gathering data on a mass-scale for researchers like me. On a personal level, I’ve been accused of being addicted to technology, so I really like the idea that your smartphone could help to improve your health.
“Health is important to everyone, so everyone has a stake in scientific research. By working with the public, researchers are more likely to ask the right research questions and produce work that is relevant, useful and has real-world impact. One of the strengths of #BritainBreathing is that it is ‘co-designed citizen science’: We held workshops right at the beginning where 35 people with allergies helped to design versions of the app using pens, paper, mock phones and glue. Lots of fun and hugely informative. You can see evidence of their designs in the final version of the #BritainBreathing app.”
The #BritainBreathing app is now available for download on Android from the Google Play store, and an iPhone version is being developed. For more information about the project, visit: www.britainbreathing.org
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