EAST LANSING, Mich. -- 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.
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 chain."
Robert Tempelman, MSU professor of animal science and statistics and probability, is the project's co-investigator.
Gale Strasburg, chairperson of the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; and Jim Pestka and Maurice Bennink, MSU professors of food science and human nutrition, also are participating in the project.
The research of Gangur, Tempelman, Pestka and Bennink is supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.
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