GM rice: Cure in sight for hay fever sufferers

11 April 2013. Source: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201304110008

Genetically modified rice may hold the key to a mask- and medicine-free existence for Japan’s millions of allergy sufferers. But the remedy is still some years away.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is backing research into GM rice artificially implanted with proteins from Japanese cedar pollen, one of the main causes of hay fever.

It hopes the rice can be produced on a commercial basis by 2020, although several problems stand in the way.

Experts say the rice, if eaten on a continuous basis, will neutralize the allergic reaction caused by cedar pollen that manifests itself in sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes.

“Japanese people have been eating rice for centuries. If we can commercialize it, (allergy sufferers) won’t need to go to the hospital or take medicine ever again,” said a hopeful Takashi Matsumoto, a senior program officer at the farm ministry’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Research Council Secretariat.

One in three to five Japanese suffers from hay fever to some degree. In addition to Japanese cedar and cypress, allergens include pollen from ragweed, mugwort and alder.

Current hay fever treatments mainly address the symptoms with medicine that stops the histamines, which cause the itchiness and runny nose, from activating. While there are curative therapies, such as injections and placing drops of pollen extract under the tongue, the results can take two to three years to bear fruit.

In contrast, the “hay fever therapy rice” is a curative treatment as long as the individual consumes a daily bowl of GM rice. It takes six months for the allergy to go away.

The farm ministry says the flavor hardly differs from regular rice.

An official explained that when the intestines absorb rice proteins, the immunity system in the gut that sorts out foreign substances “will not induce an allergic reaction because (the rice) isn’t a foreign substance.”

The research, which was nearly shelved, should cheer hay fever sufferers.

The farm ministry, along with the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, initially began developing the rice not as a medicine, but as a Food for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU) that would alleviate hay fever symptoms.

In total, 670 million yen ($7.16 million) has been poured into the project since the beginning of fiscal 2004…The farm ministry will release its research results by the end of fiscal 2014 with the aim of starting commercial production by 2020 once it has been confirmed there is no safety issue.