Wei Jia became a professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in August of 2008, after 10 years working at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a specialist in metabolomics, meaning that he looks at the chemical byproducts, or metabolites, of cells, tissues and living things. He’s done chemical analyses of the blood of colorectal cancer patients, for example, and of the amniotic fluid of malnourished pregnant rats.
Just a month after Jia moved to the U.S., he and the rest of the world heard about a tragedy in his native country. Thousands of babies in China were sick with kidney stones and several had died after drinking formula laced with a ubiquitous and cheap industrial chemical called melamine.
This was no accident, nor the result of naive incompetence. Dairy companies — nearly two dozen of them — had intentionally added melamine to the milk powder. The manufacturers knew melamine would artificially boost the protein content of the formula, even though the chemical can’t be digested. They thought it was harmless. And they were horribly wrong. Over the next few months, 300,000 children got sick and six died.
As soon as Jia found out, he called his old team of collaborators in Shanghai to start investigating this scientific head-scratcher: Why was melamine so toxic? “Because it’s not, really. It’s not supposed to be absorbable by the human body,” Jia says. Its LD-50 (“lethal dose-50″), or the dose at which 50 percent of those exposed would die, is 3161 mg/kg in rats, an incredibly low toxicity. So why had so many children gotten sick?
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