Published on March 15, 2012 at 3:06 PM
By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Researchers at CSIRO and experts at Geelong's Deakin University have found a way to “switch off” four egg allergens. These modified eggs could produce chickens that lay hypoallergenic eggs but the genes and DNA of the chicken would remain unaltered.
The researchers say this process may eventually lead to allergy-free eggs in the shops and relief for thousands of children who go into potentially fatal anaphylactic shock if they eat egg white. Typically, reactions can include wheezing, nausea, headache, stomach ache, and hives. In extreme cases, however, anaphylactic shock can result, which can itself sometimes lead to death. “The effect of this type of allergy on the whole family is immense,” said CSIRO Adjunct Professor Tim Doran, who has an anaphylactic child.
Deakin University Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu said new parents were usually the most worried about children having bad reactions to egg white. “There is evidence that new parents are exposing their infants to egg products for the first time in the car parks of major children's hospitals just so they are close to medical attention,” he said.
In bog-standard chook egg white, there are 40 proteins containing four major allergens. The CSIRO and Deakin Uni experts believe they can isolate and “switch off” those four allergens and then reintroduce the protein back into the egg. These eggs, in theory, will then produce chickens that go on to lay hypoallergenic eggs. The genes and DNA of the chicken remain unaltered. “We are not producing genetically modified chickens as part of this research,” Professor Doran added. “We are simply modifying the proteins within the egg whites to produce chickens which lay allergy-free eggs.”
The three-year research project has only just begun, but those behind it believe allergy-free eggs will be a reality and potentially on supermarket shelves within five to 10 years. There's also potential for the research to lead to allergy-free flu vaccines, some of which contain traces of egg.
Previous projects, such as one conducted by German and Swiss chemists in 2008, have looked at ways in which regular eggs could be treated in order to make them safe for consumption by allergy-sufferers. Others have cloned the allergen genes, but this project is reportedly the first one that is attempting to render the proteins harmless.