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Gut flora 'had role' in China's milk scandal

19th February 2013

Chinese infants who drank infant formula milk contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine were probably more likely to develop severe kidney disease if a certain type of microbe was present in their gut, new research suggests.


"Good" gut bacteria have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with humans over millions of years, and have a profound influence on health, affecting muscular function, mood, immune system performance and even our metabolic rate, experts say.

Researchers led by professor Wei Jia at the University of North Carolina found that the presence of the Klebsiella family of microbes in the gut could affect the severity of the kidney disease brought on by melamine poisoning.

According to official figures, around 300,000 children were hospitalised with kidney disease in 2008 after milk manufacturers and suppliers deliberately adulterated infant formula milk with melamine, to make it seem as if the milk had a higher protein content.

The melamine combined with uric acid in the children's bodies to produce kidney stones.

However, researchers have not yet fully understood how different children may have reacted differently to the contaminants.

The researchers studied how rats fed melamine developed kidney stones, and concluded from the experiments that gut bacteria could play a key role in the development of melamine-induced kidney failure in humans.

Kidney stones occur when cyanuric acid is produced from a reaction between the melamine and uric acid, naturally found in the body.

Writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Jia and his colleagues said that Klebsiella are responsible for converting melamine into the toxic cyanuric acid.

They concluded that the toxicity of melamine depends on the make-up of gut bacteria in the organism that ingests it.

This suggests that the bacteria in a person's gut could affect how they react to contaminants and poisons in their environment.

The diversity of microorganisms that live in a healthy gut is currently being probed for possible treatments for C. diff, anorexia and irritable bowel syndrome.

The melamine-tainted milk scandal was first exposed by Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post reporter Jian Guanzhou, who was the first journalist to name Sanlu as the source of contaminated milk powder in September 2008.

Jian shot to national fame after he began investigating the cases of 14 babies in Gansu province with kidney problems.

Jian deduced that what the cases had in common was their use of Sanlu powder, publishing his conclusions on his paper's website in spite of huge pressure from powerful company executives. Melamine was later found in a number of other brands of infant formula milk.

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