Saturday science subject: Antihistamines? Try rice

What if you could ward off seasonal allergies by simply eating a special type of rice regularly for a few months? That may soon be possible. According to New Scientist, a team of Japanese researchers are planning to start clinical trials of rice that has been genetically modified to make subjects less receptive to allergens:

The rice is designed to block symptoms of runny noses and sneezing in people allergic to Japanese cedar pollen, who account for 20 per cent of the Japanese population. It is genetically modified to contain the seven proteins within cedar pollen that provoke the most serious allergic reactions in people.

Once in the intestine, the proteins damp down allergic responses through so-called "oral tolerance". This is a process, controlled by lymph nodes, by which the immune system "learns" not to overreact to harmless foreign material such as food.

To stop the proteins being digested before they can have their effect, the rice was engineered to produce them in the endoplasmic reticulum, a part of rice plant cells that passes undigested through the stomach.

Fumio Takaiwa and his team at the National Institute for Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan got positive results in a trial with mice in 2005, and they recently completed a six-month "safety assessment" in monkeys.

For the rice to work, New Scientist says humans would have to eat it "regularly about three to six months before the allergy season, which lasts from February to April." Treating hay fever may only be the start, too. Takaiwa's team has reportedly started work on yet another type of GM rice, this one designed to prevent allergies to dust mites.

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