Good news for Celiac disease sufferers

Celiac disease (CD) is a digestive disorder that affects as many as 1 in 133 individuals. When CD sufferers eat foods containing gluten, which is present in wheat, rye and barley products, they exhibit a range of painful symptoms due to damage to the lining of the small intestine. Gluten is not a single protein, but rather comprises two families of proteins: glutenins and gliadins. It’s the gliadin proteins that cause the most trouble for CD sufferers. Currently the only treatment for CD is to avoid eating gluten entirely. This is challenging, given the amount of wheat, rye and barley products used as additives in prepared food. Also, gluten and yeast work together to make bread rise, and sometimes you just want a nice, chewy piece of bread.

Researchers thought that if they could remove just the gliadins from the gluten, CD sufferers would be able to safely eat gluten-containing products. Notice the difference between this and other biotech crops that we’ve seen in the news: instead of adding herbicide-tolerance or insect resistance to the plant, these researchers are removing proteins that cause disease in some people. Using a technique called “RNA interference”*, Gil-Humanes and colleagues showed that gliadin proteins could be reduced in wheat. Preliminary evidence reported in this paper suggests that CD sufferers won’t fall ill from the altered gluten proteins in the reduced-gliadin wheat.

You may be wondering: does reducing the gluten in wheat affect the texture of the bread? Apparently not, according to one bread-making quality test.

J Gil-Humanes, F Pistón, S Tollefsen, LM Sollid, F Barro. 2010. Effective shutdown in the expression of celiac disease-related wheat gliadin T-cell epitopes by RNA interference. PNAS 107: 17023 – 17028.

*RNA interference (RNAi) is a technique for preventing a gene from making protein. For more information, see this explanation on MedicineNet.

For more information about Celiac disease.


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