A goat can eat poison oak with impunity.
Could that immunity transfer to a person by drinking that goat’s milk?
That’s the question that drove an interdisciplinary research team at Oregon State University to test the milk of several poison-oak fed female goats. So far, the results are inconclusive, says Massimo Bionaz, an animal scientist. “We have not yet found any evidence of immune-related effects in our study, but we are still analyzing our data,” he says.
Those data involve far more than itching versus not itching.
Bionaz, who is partnering on the project with food scientist Lisbeth Goddik, is collecting and analyzing complex biological data at the genetic level. They are focused on molecules known as microRNA, which are found in plants and animals, and are secreted through milk. MiRNAs are considered a vital component in the regulation of gene expression, a process that allows a cell to respond, or not, to its changing environment. Bionaz’s team has identified the miRNAs affected by poison oak and they can determine with high likelihood the probable genes in humans that are affected by these miRNAs.
But again, this study goes beyond poison oak. One of Bionaz’s primary areas of research is nutrigenomics, which is the study of the effects of foods and food components on gene expression, especially with regard to the prevention or treatment of disease.
Currently, his research focuses on the potential effects of miRNA found in raw cow’s milk on human adipose stem cells. The idea is that the miRNA in the cow’s milk might affect the stem cells that give rise to fat cells.
“The problem of obesity is the size of fat cells, large fat cells are the results of the accumulation of a large amount of fat in few cells,” he says. “These cells become less sensitive to insulin which further increases the accumulation of fat. Also, large fat cells are somewhat related to a low-grade inflammation which is known to be one of the causes of heart problems, the hardening and narrowing of the arteries and stroke. If we induce more stem cells to become fat cells we might decrease the size of them, making them more sensitive to insulin and less prone to low-grade inflammation.”
The potential effects of plant and animal miRNA on people is a “dramatic shift in the idea of nutrition,” he says. “Nutrigenomics could change the way we look at food, nutrition, and health.”