Genetically Modified Enzymes – an emerging occupational hazard

Genetically Modified Enzymes – an emerging occupational hazard

Increased consumer demand for low fat food and natural flavours have fuelled the production of genetically engineered flavourings and fragrances. This modification in the enzyme protein may alter the enzymes allergenic properties and thus leave workers more susceptible to developing hypersensitivity to them.

Enzymes and artificial enzymes are known to be potential sensitisers and are also potentially hazardous to the respiratory system. Genetically modified enzymes are currently being developed to create flavouring, aromas and powerful cleaners for a variety of household products. Of which there is a lack of commercial diagnostic tests to monitor the potential health risks associated with these enzymes.

A recent study measured the specific antibodies to artificially engineered enzymes in the blood samples of over 800 workers across a range of industries. The analysis showed that almost one in four of the employees had specific antibodies to the artificially engineered enzymes they were routinely exposed to, and strong correlations between work-related respiratory symptoms and antibody levels. The highest levels of antibodies were found among those occupationally exposed to alpha amylase, phytase, xylanase and glucanase.

The study then tested the skin reactions and lung power of 134 of those workers who had detailed clinical diagnostics confirming work-related symptoms. The clinical data showed that more than one in three of the group reported to have work related symptoms of asthma or rhinitis and the analysis showed they had higher levels of specific antibodies when compared to workers who did not have symptoms. The study concluded that “genetically engineered enzymes are potent allergens eliciting immediate-type sensitisation”.

Current legislation regulates the use of genetically engineered enzymes and not the occupational health risks associated with them. Therefore, improved occupational hygiene practices for monitoring and protecting workers will enable effective risk management strategies once new enzymes have been introduced to the workplace.

Reference: Professor Lygia T Budnik, Environ Med doi: 10.1136/oemed-2015-103442