A new study concludes that a sugar molecule endemic to human physiology may react with red meat to trigger a heightened risk of cancer — if you’re a genetically engineered rodent, that is.

At first glance, recent clinical research appears to offer a potentially sour ending to 2014 for those involved in animal agriculture.

According to the report published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, red meat appears to elevate the risk of cancer, but not due to the usual suspects (saturated fat, high-heat grilling, etc.), but instead due to the presence of what researchers called a molecule “unnatural to human biology.”

The research team suggested that a sugar molecule called Neu5Gc, which is present in beef, pork, lamb and bison, is capable of triggering an immune system reaction. That causes tissue inflammation, which creates a higher lifetime risk of cancer. The same process also occurs when people consume whole milk, certain cheeses and caviar, the study reported.

Thank God I’ve cut back on my daily intake of caviar.

The study leader, Dr. Ajit Varki, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of California-San Diego, called the Neu5Gc finding “unprecedented.”

“In this case, the foreign sugar is like a Trojan Horse,” Varki told the San Diego Tribune-Union. “It becomes part of your own cells. This is the first example we know of something that’s foreign, [but] gets totally incorporated into you, despite the fact that your immune system recognizes it.”

Varki said that Neu5Gc plays the role of “gasoline on the fire” — it boosts a person’s cancer risk, although doesn’t seem to be the ultimate cause of the disease.

He got that last part right.

Of mice and men

Now, it’s axiomatic that a single study, despite the media’s non-critical embrace of what are merely hypothetical conclusions, does not in fact establish cause-and-effect — not to mention that this particular research project involved using mice. Here’s how it worked”

The researchers fed Neu5Gc to two groups of mice: one that naturally had Neu5Gc and another that was genetically engineered so that they no longer have the molecule, which parallels human biology. The bio-engineered mice exhibited a cancer rate more than five times that of the other mice.

If and when we start bio-engineering our kids, at least we’ll know what molecules not to include.

But here’s an additional reason why this study shouldn’t be lumped in with so many others that the media simply summarize as “red meat will kill you” and move on. As news reports stated, the researchers’ analysis might provide a template for “selective breeding” that producers would use to reduce the amount of Neu5Gc.

James Paulson at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., who is considered an expert on Neu5Gc and other similar compounds, suggested as much. “This report might stimulate entrepreneurial breeders to develop cattle stocks deficient in this nonhuman sugar,” he quoted in the story.

Varki even suggested that the study might point the way toward developing an antidote to counteract the risk of cancer.

(Let me think. Developing that antidote would require additional research funding, now wouldn’t it? Gee, I wonder whose lab might be tasked with spending the multi-millions it would take to pursue such a project.)

And in assessing the import of this study, let’s not forget that the genesis of cancer is almost always multi-factorial — genetic predispositions, diet, lifestyle, exposure to toxins, even stress itself have all been linked with an increased risk of developing the disease. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that Neu5Gc is probably the least of our problems.

In fact, do you know what the most critical risk factor for cancer is? Hate to bring this up as we flip the calendar over to a New Year, but it’s an infallible, unassailable risk: Age.

The older we get, the greater the odds are that the Big C might be in our future.

Bottom line, this study is intriguing, but it’s no indictment of red meat consumption — despite the way most media reports painted it. And if, in fact, the presence of Neu5Gc actually triggers cancer, then there are pathways to dealing with such a specific vector, the same way that microbial pathogens can be neutralized (if not eliminated).

In the end, about all that can be gleaned from Prof. Varki’s research are these two words:

Stay tuned.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.