Allergens in the body
There are 2 main risks of introducing a new protein into our food via genetic engineering:
1. The new protein could be a toxin
2. The new protein could be an allergen
It is relatively easy to test for toxicity because all people, in general, react the same to a toxin…so the mechanism is easier to investigate. Allergic reactions, however, are specific to individuals and effect less than 1% of the population. Thus, it takes more investigation to determine if a new protein may be an allergen. Understanding the body’s response to allergens can give us the background knowledge to understand testing that is done to reduce the risk of introducing new allergens through genetic engineering.
How do we use this information?
Knowing how the body responds to allergens informs how we can preemptively screen for potential allergens. For example, the protein sequence of the transgene can be compared to the sequence of all known allergens in a database. If the sequence of the transgene is similar to a known allergen then “serum” or blood can be collected from people who are known to react with that allergen. Using this blood sample, it is then possible to see whether the antibodies in their serum react with the transgenic protein in the same way. If so, the project is abandoned because a small number of people would be put at risk of an allergic reaction, which is deemed unacceptable. If not, then it will not be an allergen to those people and will likely be safe for them to consume.