PORCINE PREDICTOR: Various proteins from foods such as soybeans are injected underneath the skin of pigs to help identify those items that are most allergenic. Image: AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH SERVICE,USDA; SCOTT BAUER
A bite of a cookie containing peanuts could cause the airway to constrict fatally. Sharing a toy with another child who had earlier eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich could raise a case of hives. A peanut butter cup dropped in a Halloween bag could contaminate the rest of the treats, posing an unknown risk.
These are the scenarios that "make your bone marrow turn cold" according to L. Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Besides representing the policy interests of food biotech companies in Washington, D.C., Giddings is the father of a four-year-old boy with a severe peanut allergy. Peanuts are among the most allergenic foods; estimates of the number of people who experience a reaction to the legumes hover around 2 percent of the population.
Giddings says that peanuts are only one of several foods that biotechnologists are altering genetically in an attempt to eliminate the proteins that wreak havoc with some people's immune systems. Although soy allergies do not usually cause life-threatening reactions, the scientists are also targeting soybeans, which can be found in two thirds of all manufactured food, making the supermarket a minefield for people allergic to soy. Biotechnologists are zeroing in on wheat, too, and might soon expand their research to the rest of the "big eight" allergy-inducing foods: tree nuts, milk, eggs, shellfish and fish.
Last September, for example, Anthony J. Kinney, a crop genetics researcher at DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del., and his colleagues reported using a technique called RNA interference (RNAi) to silence the genes that encode p34, a protein responsible for causing 65 percent of all soybean allergies. RNAi exploits the mechanism that cells use to protect themselves against foreign genetic material; it causes a cell to destroy RNA transcribed from a given gene, effectively turning off the gene.
Whether the public will accept food genetically modified to be low-allergen is still unknown. Courtney Chabot Dreyer, a spokesperson for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont, says that the company will conduct studies to determine whether a niche market exists for low-allergen soy before developing the seeds for sale to farmers. She estimates that Pioneer Hi-Bred is seven years away from commercializing the altered soybeans.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, scientific director of the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest--a group that has advocated enhanced Food and Drug Administration oversight for genetically modified foods--comments that his organization would not oppose low-allergen foods if they prove to be safe. But he wonders about "identity preservation" a term used in the food industry to describe the deliberate separation of genetically engineered and nonengineered products. A batch of nonengineered peanuts or soybeans might contaminate machinery reserved for low-allergen versions, he suggests, reducing the benefit of the gene-altered food. Such issues of identity preservation could make low-allergen genetically modified foods too costly to produce, Chabot Dreyer admits. But, she says, "it's still too early to see if that's true."
Biotech's contributions to fighting food allergies need not require gene modification of the foods themselves, Giddings notes. He suggests that another approach might be to design monoclonal antibodies that bind to and eliminate the complexes formed between allergens and the subclass of the body's own antibodies that trigger allergic reactions. "Those sorts of therapeutics could offer a huge potential," Giddings states, and may be more acceptable to a public wary of genetically modified foods. He definitely sees an untapped specialty market. "When you find out your child has a life-threatening food allergy, your life changes in an instant," Giddings remarks. "You never relax." Not having to worry about every bite will enable Giddings--and his son--to breathe a lot easier.