I remember the first time I heard about mammalian meat allergy, or what is sometimes referred to as the alpha-gal allergy. I was sitting at an Indianapolis restaurant with Ryan Tipps, my AGDAILY editor. I ordered the restaurant’s famous burger. Ryan avoided red meat and asked the waitress some oddly specific questions. He later shared with me the tick bite that changed his diet and life.
The mammalian meat allergy is actually an allergy to the alpha-gal sugar often found in red meat. Symptoms differ, but sufferers usually have a reactions hours after consuming the sugar. And while there aren’t many people with the allergy, new cases continue to pop up. That’s because it can be transmitted through the bite of the lone-star tick.
Can you imagine? After spending time outdoors, you come home to find a tick latched onto you and now you can’t eat bacon. No, thank you.
There could be some relief for people like Ryan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved GalSafe pigs for human consumption and medicinal purposes. These pigs have intentional genomic alteration (IGA) to eliminate the alpha-gal sugar. So the animal, its meat, and its organs should be safe for allergy sufferers.
IGA is actually a set of technologies regulated by the FDA. It enables scientists to make very precise changes in the animal’s DNA by intentionally adding, substituting, or deleting specific gene sequences. These techniques are even more specific than genetic engineering. You’ve probably heard of CRISPR — clustered regulatory interspersed short palindromic repeat associated nucleases — which is another type.
The really cool thing is that the FDA cleared these pigs both for human consumption and medicinal uses. The hope is to use the altered pigs to create medicines that are free from the alpha-gal sugar. And it could help with animal-to-human organ transfers. The sugar is usually considered the reason some transfers don’t work. So the GalSafe pigs may provide the solution. (Fun fact: The company behind GalSafe pigs is Revivicor Inc., a spinoff of PPL Therapeutics, the company that famously cloned Dolly the Sheep in the 1990s.)
The risk to those with food allergies hits close to home. My brother discovered in his late 20s that he’s allergic to gluten. My sister-in-law makes a valiant effort to modify recipes so he can eat them. But sometimes there just isn’t any comparable substitution. He’s lucky though. For some people accidentally eating food with allergens could be a fatal mistake.
I’ll admit I love to hear about these things. These scientific advances can offer practical answers to some of humanity’s most pressing problems. And while there aren’t a lot of people that suffer from mammalian meat allergy, everyone is at risk of needing an organ transplant. These pigs could be the difference between life and death.
So I hope the progress continues. It’s important to have a robust regulatory framework to oversee and supervise these projects. But it has to be fair and can’t hinder innovation. And we need to share these breakthroughs in a way the consuming public can understand and trust. That’s how we end up with more stories like these to share.
And, by the way, I can’t wait to ask Ryan how it feels to eat bacon after so long!
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.