Human uptake and incorporation of an immunogenic nonhuman dietary sialic acid

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Oct 14;100(21):12045-50. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2131556100. Epub 2003 Oct 1.


Humans are genetically unable to produce the sialic acid N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), because of a mutation that occurred after our last common ancestor with great apes. Although Neu5Gc is presumed absent from normal humans, small amounts have been claimed to exist in human tumors and fetal meconium. We have generated an antibody with high specificity and avidity for Neu5Gc. Fetal tissues, normal adult tissues, and breast carcinomas from humans showed reactivity to this antibody, primarily within secretory epithelia and blood vessels. The presence of small amounts of Neu5Gc was confirmed by MS. Absent any known alternate pathway for its synthesis, we reasoned that these small amounts of Neu5Gc might originate from exogenous sources. Indeed, human cells fed with Neu5Gc incorporated it into endogenous glycoproteins. When normal human volunteers ingested Neu5Gc, a portion was absorbed and eliminated in urine, and small quantities were incorporated into newly synthesized glycoproteins. Neu5Gc has never been reported in plants or microbes to our knowledge. We found that Neu5Gc is rare in poultry and fish, common in milk products, and enriched in red meats. Furthermore, normal humans have variable amounts of circulating IgA, IgM, and IgG antibodies against Neu5Gc, with the highest levels comparable to those of the previously known anti-alpha-galactose xenoreactive antibodies. This finding represents an instance wherein humans absorb and metabolically incorporate a nonhuman dietary component enriched in foods of mammalian origin, even while generating xenoreactive, and potentially autoreactive, antibodies against the same molecule. Potential implications for human diseases are briefly discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies / blood
  • Antibody Specificity
  • Biological Transport, Active
  • Caco-2 Cells
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / immunology*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism*
  • Fetus / immunology
  • Glycoproteins / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neuraminic Acids / immunology*
  • Neuraminic Acids / metabolism*


  • Antibodies
  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Glycoproteins
  • Neuraminic Acids
  • N-glycolylneuraminic acid