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Denver 2003 Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 22:43 GMT
Towards allergen-free shrimp
Prawn farm (bbc)
The seafood industry might have to fund clinical trials
Amos, BBC

Scientists are working on an allergen-free shrimp - one that will not send the diner rushing to the bathroom.

A great many people have a violent reaction to foods such as shellfish and peanuts and researchers are looking at ways to genetically engineer them to make them safer to eat.

But there are questions over whether many of these products will reach the market.

The doubts exist not so much because of public antipathy towards GM technology but the crippling costs that could be involved in the novel foods' development.

Classic symptoms

The shrimp work is being done by Samuel Lehrer from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

He has identified the major shrimp allergen - a muscle protein called tropomysin. He has even located the region on the molecule that causes the problem.

It is a specific sequence of amino acids that binds with an antibody produced by the immune system known as immunoglobulin E (IgE).

It is this reaction that can lead to the classic allergic responses of itchiness around the eyes, throat, skin and mouth - and worse.

Tropomysin is an essential protein in shrimp muscle so it cannot simply be removed from the animal's genome.

Reduced risk

Instead, Lehrer's group is now modifying the protein's amino acid sequence so that it cannot bind with IgE.

He reported his progress to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Denver.

"The real challenge is going to be to express the mutated molecule in shrimp and suppress the native molecule, and we have to be cautious in terms of saying whether or not [the modified shrimp] will be completely free of allergens.

"And of course we need to ensure we don't induce new allergenic reactivity through these alterations.

"It will take some time but I do believe we will soon see healthier foods whose risk has been reduced - foods that have at the very least been substantially reduced in allergenic activity."

Huge costs

Other research groups are investigating the allergens associated with peanuts and soy.

But there are question marks over whether products such as allergen-free peanuts, for example, will ever be sold to the public.

Charles Arntzen, a researcher working on GM plants at Arizona State University, certainly has his doubts.

He told the AAAS: "If you are going to introduce a peanut butter that you claim is non-allergenic you are going to have to get that claim approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"It's going to require clinical trials. That's going to be very expensive; we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars probably. You are then going to put yourself in place for litigation if the food fails as claimed and that will make the clinical trials look cheap."

He said the beauty of research was in discovering the nature of allergencity, discovering which foods were dangerous to which populations and identifying new diagnostic tools and nutrition plans.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Samuel Lehrer, Tulane University, New Orleans
and Charles Arntzen, Arizona State University, discuss the research
Denver, BBC

Latest news
See also:

18 Nov 02 | Health
08 Feb 03 | Medical notes
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