Brown Bag Lecture: “Food or Drug? The Advent of Medical Foods in the U.S.”

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A talk by Donna Messner

Medical foods are specially formulated nutritional products to be ingested under the supervision of a physician to treat disease. This talk focused on the development of the first medical food, an infant formula called Lofenalac to treat phenylketonuria (PKU). 

The development of Lofenalac was associated with a milestone in the history of newborn screening and allowed for countless patients to avoid debilitating PKU-induced mental retardation. It also blurred the definitional boundaries between food and drugs, challenging U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulatory categories of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That challenge continues to resonate, as multiple categories of scientifically engineered foods increasingly dominate contemporary life.

Donna A. Messner received a Ph.D. in science and technology studies from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2008. For the last two years she has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Penn Center for the Integration of Genetic Health Care Technologies (Penn CIGHT) in the University of Pennsylvania's Division of Medical Genetics. Her research has included the history of the development and regulation of drugs for AIDS and cancer, the socio-legal implications of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, and the history of selected gene patents.  Prior to pursuing a PhD, Messner had an 18-year career as an analytical chemist.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly, informal talks by CHF fellows and members of the academic and business communities on topics involving the history of chemistry, political and social issues of importance to chemists and chemical engineers, and issues affecting the future of chemical research.For more information, please call 215.873.8289, or e-mail

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