In 2011 and 2012, research from China's Nanjing University made international headlines with reports that after mice ate, bits of genetic material from the plants they'd ingested could make it into their bloodstreams intact and turn the animals' own genes off. The surprising results from Chen-Yu Zhang's group led to speculation that genetic illness might one day be treated with medicinal food, but also to worry that genetically modified foods might in turn modify consumers in unanticipated ways.
Now, though, a research team at Johns Hopkins reports that Zhang's results were likely a false positive that resulted from the technique his group used. The new study, the Johns Hopkins group says, bolsters the case of skeptics who argued that genetic material from food would have little chance of surviving the digestive system, much less crossing the intestinal lining to enter the bloodstream. The study appears in the July issue of RNA Biology.
"It's disappointing in a sense it would open up so many therapeutic possibilities if microRNAs from food really could get into our blood and regulate our genes," says Kenneth Witwer, Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, who led the new study. But beyond the fact that people won't be picking up prescription lettuce at the pharmacy anytime soon, he adds, the larger lesson is that scientific research's capacity for self-correction is alive and well.
Witwer said his group was intrigued by the earlier results, in which Zhang's group focused on microRNAs, molecules that are a chemical cousin of DNA. Rather than storing genetic information as DNA does, their primary role is to intervene in so-called "gene expression," the process of using genes' blueprints to build proteins. Because they affect whether and how much genes are actually used, microRNAs wield tremendous power, Witwer notes, "so it was startling to think that microRNAs from plants could get
|Contact: Shawna Williams|
Johns Hopkins Medicine