Hortense Dodo has pioneered a process for engineering safer peanuts that can prevent deadly reactions.
Jan 26 2018, 10:26am
Hortense Dodo, a food scientist and entrepreneur based in North Carolina, has been on a mission to develop a hypoallergenic peanut for over a decade. This aspiration blossomed from Dodo’s lifelong fascination with food science, beginning with her upbringing in Côte d’Ivoire, where she often wondered about how agricultural patterns impacted crop supplies at local markets.
“Food science has always been my focus, from early on,” Dodo told me over the phone.
After earning two degrees and a scholarship in Africa, Dodo followed her passion to the University of Georgia, where she earned a master’s degree in food science and technology. She followed this up with a PhD in food biotechnology and molecular biology at Penn State University, then became a professor at Alabama A&M University in 1993.
Moving to the United States helped Dodo reach her academic goals, but it also introduced her to a health problem that would become her career focus—life-threatening peanut allergies. These allergies are much more prevalent in industrialized nations than in the developing world, killing an estimated 150 people in the US per year, and causing many thousands more to suffer hives, breathing problems, and other reactions that can require hospitalization.
“I came from a place where peanuts were abundant, peanuts were consumed by almost everyone,” Dodo said. “I had never heard of people dying from them.”
When she learned that one of her friends had a daughter with a nut allergy, she was inspired to start researching the possibility of producing a safer peanut. As she shared her findings at conferences and public lectures, Dodo was further motivated by the countless stories of people with deadly allergies, and those with loved ones affected by them.
“Invariably, I’d have mothers of children [with peanut allergies] coming to me at the end of my scientific presentations, sometimes in tears,” Dodo said. “I tell my students: ‘The job of the scientist is not to make money so much as it is to identify a problem in society, and find a solution for that problem.’”
“That’s basically what I put into action for myself,” she added. “There was a problem. It was very intriguing to me, and on top of that, children were dying. That was the biggest thing: How can children be dying from eating food that most of us eat?”
In her laboratory, Dodo experimented on standard peanuts using RNA interference technology (RNAi), which is a method of genetically engineering organisms by “silencing” the expression of certain proteins and traits. In this case, Dodo singled out three proteins that produce the most extreme reactions in allergy sufferers, known as Ara h1, Ara h2, and Ara h3, and was able to develop a patented process that eliminated the impact of those dangerous components.
By exposing the peanut to blood serum from people with allergies, and examining the response of antibodies to it, Dodo and her team can test the peanut’s hypoallergenic properties. The results have been extremely promising, inspiring Dodo to found her own biotechnology company, called IngateyGen, LLC, in order to bring her hypoallergenic peanut into the commercial sector.
“I needed to do a little more than the academic research, so that became a passion for me,” Dodo said. “We had part of the solution to this problem, and we had to bring it to the market so that no more women, no more mothers, had to face this type of reality—no mother had to lose their child from a peanut allergy. That was a big motivation for me to get the project from the academic arena to a business setting, to give it a chance to bring this product to market.”
Dodo runs IngateyGen from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and also serves as an adjunct professor in the biology department at Fayetteville State University. She has developed professional connections with North Carolina’s peanut industry, as well as federal regulators, in order to grow her peanut variety in the field.
“We’ve been working with peanut farmers in North Carolina for three years of field testing, under the supervision of the USDA, to make sure that our product was behaving in the field like a normal conventional peanut. We were in compliance with all the federal regulators, so that was a good thing for us,” she said, adding that the taste and yield of her peanut is comparable to the standard variety.
Dodo is not the only scientist working on hypoallergenic foods, but her work is so impressive that she was recently awarded a $225,000 small business innovation research grant from the federal government, along with a $50,000 small business grant from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. She’s now channeling this momentum toward the ultimate goal of getting FDA market clearance for her peanut, which she hopes to attain within the next few years.
In addition to this work developing safer peanuts, and other enriched crops, Dodo devotes much of her energy to mentoring aspiring women scientists. When I spoke to her, she had just arrived back to the US after a trip to Africa, where she was invited to a conference to share her expertise with other women interested in pursuing STEM fields.
“Worldwide, we don’t have enough women in sciences,” Dodo told me. “You have a very strong weight from society on women who want to become scientists. It takes a lot of mentorship and encouragement and modeling for these young women to go down the path of science. It’s important for young women to see that you can be a scientist and a woman, and still have your feminine life and enjoy it, without your career being an impediment to being a woman.”
Fortunately, Dodo has seen enormous strides in the right direction over the course of her own career, which has made her optimistic about the future of women in STEM. “You can see that the younger generation of women have been able to build some sort of friendship across countries and across boundaries that keep them connected to what they really want to do,” she said.
“It’s good, because at the time I started, we definitely didn’t have this type of support system,” Dodo recalled. “Now, the younger generation has a bigger support system and access to the internet so there’s definitely a bigger freedom and voice in stating what they really want, in letting society know their wishes, and even getting some societal support from men as well as women.”