Will GE foods cause allergic reactions? Michigan State University scientists receive EPA grant to find out
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The potential of genetically engineered foods to cause allergic reactions in
humans is a big reason for opposition to such crops. Although protocols are
in place to ask questions about the allergy-causing possibilities, there has
been no test that offers definitive answers, September 2006.
But all of that could change as a Michigan State University researcher has
developed the first animal model to test whether genetically engineered
foods could cause human allergic reactions. Venu Gangur, MSU assistant
professor of food science and human nutrition, has received a $447,000 grant
from the Environmental Protection Agency to validate the test.
Genetically engineered crops are created by inserting a protein from a
different organism into the original crop's genome. This is usually done to
create a plant that is more resistant to insects or diseases.
The Food and Agriculture Organization within the World Health Organization
has a structured approach to determining whether genetically engineered
foods cause allergies, according to Gangur, who also is a faculty member in
the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center. "But it has a major flaw. A
critical question in that process asks, 'Does the protein cause an allergic
reaction in animals?' The problem is that there has been no good animal
model available to test this.?
Gangur and students in his lab have developed a mouse model ? the first of
its kind ? to test the allergy-causing potential of genetically engineered
foods. He'll use the EPA grant to examine whether the model works on a
variety of proteins. If successfully validated, the testing could be
available commercially in about five years.
Perhaps the best known case of a genetically engineered crop potentially
causing allergies was StarLink corn. Created by Aventis in 1996, StarLink
contained the cry9C protein from a common soil bacterium, a strain of
Bacillus thuringiensis. The cry9C protein protected the corn from several
types of corn borers and black cutworms. StarLink was approved by the EPA
for use in animal feed and nonfood products in 1998. But in 2000, fragments
of cry9C DNA were detected in taco shells and other food products.
"Many people believed that StarLink was responsible for their asthma attacks
and other allergic reactions," Gangur said. "The Centers for Disease Control
took samples and tried to figure out if StarLink was the cause, but the data
were inconclusive. There was really no good method to determine if StarLink
caused allergic reactions. This is why our model will be such a valuable
tool. We'll be able to determine the allergenic potential of genetically
engineered crops before they're released into the human or animal food
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