A UNCG researcher led an international team of scientists who may have uncovered the mystery behind one of China’s worst food safety scandals, which took the lives of at least six infants fed powdered milk deliberately tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.

Dr. Wei Jia, a nutrition professor and co-director of the Center for Translational Biomedical Research at UNCG, along with scientists in China and London, released findings Wednesday that microbes present in the gut can affect the severity of kidney disease brought on by melamine poisoning.

In 2008, nearly 300,000 Chinese children were hospitalized with kidney disease brought on by supplies of powdered milk illegally contaminated with melamine to simulate higher nitrogen content. Although melamine was known to combine with uric acid in the children’s bodies to produce harmful kidney stones, the details of the reaction were not well understood or the fact that the presence of specific gut microbes changed the risk.

By studying how melamine contributes to the development of kidney stones in rats, the research groups have shown experimentally that gut microbes may be central to understanding melamine-induced kidney failure in humans.

Jia’s research was highlighted in dozens of newspaper and television reports on Thursday, from ABC News and The Boston Globe, to The Huffington Post and U.S. News & World Report. Both “Science” and “Nature” magazines planned to highlight Jia’s work, he said.

The metabolic activities of gut microbes strongly influence human health in profound ways and have been linked to the development of multiple medical problems ranging from autoimmune diseases, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Jia co-authored “Host-Gut Microbiota Metabolic Interactions” with researchers from the United Kingdom, France and Sweden for the June 8, 2012, issue of “Science” magazine.

Find the Associated Press story about a Jia’s research here.


By Mary Robinson

Photography by David Wilson and Chris English, University Relations