Potatoes to the rescue

Genetically engineered potatoes can help prevent diabetes and tackle diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis

Published: Monday 15 September 1997

canadian researchers have developed potatoes that may be used to prevent diabetes. The special potato has been successfully tried on mice, to prevent one type of diabetes called type i . The researchers say plants can also be used for treating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis by the means of genetic manipulations ( New scientist, Vol 155, No 2092).

Diabetes is caused when the process of production of insulin in the body is hampered. Insulin is produced by certain cells in the pancreas called islet cells that have a protein called gad . It is responsible for maintaining the sugar level in the body. Type I diabetes occurs when cells of the immune system of the body attack certain proteins including gad and the islet cells. In such cases, patients are required to take insulin injections to control diabetes.

For a proper treatment of diabetes, scientists have been trying to find a solution so that the immune system could be stopped from killing the islet cells. By consuming more amounts of gad, one can save the proteins from being attacked. However, gad cannot be produced in a large amount.

A team of researchers led by Anthony Jevnikar of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, inserted a gene that codes gad into dna of potato plants. They found that the potato produced by that plant, thereafter, had high levels of gad . The study team used mice to demonstrate the effect, as their pancreas and the immune system are similar to humans.

In this experiment, the study team had bred special kind of mice that were susceptible to diabetes. Two groups were formed having one of 12 mice and the other of 10 mice. These genetically engineered potatoes were fed to a group of 12 mice, among which two had diabetes. The other group was not fed on these potatoes. Results showed that eight out of 10 mice developed diabetes. The researchers say that in humans, same kind of response can be expected.

If the approach does transfer into humans, it can be useful for treating children effectively. They would not know that they are eating medicine, says Marco Londei, an expert in the immunology of diabetes at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, London.

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