Good news for allergy sufferers: Researchers may have hit upon a fast, new way to detect circulating pollen using a common laboratory technique that would provide instant updates of which types of the allergen are circulating in the air.  So far, the technique has only been shown to work in a lab, but it paves the way for a quicker detection system in the future, scientists report today in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

"[Pollen-counting] is a very time-consuming process," says David Shulan, an allergist at Certified Allergy and Asthma Consultants in Albany, New York. "It takes a lot of training to be able to identify the pollens. . . .  It would be nice if we could do things quicker" he adds, noting that a real-time automated pollen-detection system might help allergists make more accurate diagnoses.

Currently, pollen counters rely on the tedious process of collecting pollen (the sperm-packed powdery substance carried from one plant to the next by insects or wind currents) from the air and inspecting samples under microscopes. Take, for example, the National Allergy Bureau, a pollen-counting organization run by the nonprofit American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAAI). The bureau has 70 pollen-counting stations across the U.S. that issue reports daily or every few days. This can leave hay fever sufferers in the dark for a day or longer.

The new so-called Raman spectroscopy method could potentially provide doctors and allergy sufferers with hourly updates. The technique involves shining a laser on samples of pollen grains, which causes proteins, nucleic acids, and other molecules in those grains to vibrate and scatter the laser light.

By comparing the energy of the laser before and after it hits the pollen, scientists can make inferences about the chemical composition of the pollen. These energy differences are visually represented by Raman spectra, graphs depicting laser wavelength versus intensity.  As this study shows, different pollen species have characteristic or "fingerprint" spectra, allowing scientists to distinguish among pollen from different plant species.

"As illustrated by the data, the spectra of whole pollen can be used for their classification," the researchers write. "Such an approach is particularly promising, considering its potential to be employed for automatic pollen detection and warning."

No word on when it might be available for daily use, and lead study author Janina Kneipp, a chemist at Germany's Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing, declined to comment for the story.

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