Neu5Gc- the molecule in meat that gives us diseases

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Neu5Gc- the molecule in meat that gives us diseases

Neu5Gc is the name of a molecule that animals have yet we don't. We ingest this molecule by eating meat, and the build up of this molecule in our body may be a cause of cancers and other diseases

Prof Varki found that Neu5Gc was foreign to humans, even though we carry a very similar version of the same molecule - which may be one reason why animal-to-human organ and tissue transplants do not work well.

In recent years, he has come to believe that the implications of this molecular difference are much wider. He has built up a range of evidence that potentially links Neu5Gc, a so-called sialic acid, to chronic disease.

This is because the animal version is absorbed by humans as a result of eating red meat and milk products, and there is evidence that the body views it as an invader.

Eating these foods could trigger inflammation and, over the long term, heart disease, certain cancers and auto-immune illnesses. Prof Varki stresses, however, that "we have not proven any link to disease, just suggested that it is something to explore".

This sialic acid plays a number of roles: it helps us recognise cells and helps cells stick together (this stickiness is also exploited by microbes, which latch on to the sugary molecule to invade our cells). It also helps regulate our immune response, which may influence the progression of diseases and even play a part in human evolution.

The first evidence that this particular molecule is of unique importance to humans came a decade ago. Prof Varki's team, along with Prof Elaine Muchmore, also of the University of California, studied blood from chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and humans.

They found that we are the only primates whose bodies do not produce Neu5Gc - although further research established that our Neanderthal cousins were missing this version of the sugar acid, too.

Instead, human (and Neanderthal) cells bristle with a sugar called Neu5Ac. The two molecules are identical, apart from one little detail: the ape molecule has a single extra oxygen atom. Because of the many different jobs this sugar does throughout the body, this one atom was the first example found of a fundamental genetic and biochemical difference between humans and our closest relatives.

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By netchicken: posted on 9-7-2008

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