Can scientists create gluten-free wheat plants to make bread with? Writing in the journal PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists concludes that it’s quite possible.
People with serious gluten allergies such as celiac disease now have only one tried-and-true option: swear off all foods containing wheat, barley and rye. Only that way can they avoid the damage that gluten exposure wreaks: abdominal pain, nutritional deficiencies and a progressive flattening of the tiny hairlike villi in the gut that are needed for the proper digestion of food.
Avoiding gluten isn’t easy, and those with the discipline to succeed deal with a host of restrictions to their diets.
Scientists have experimented with another tack: sifting through different varieties of wheat and barley lines that lack, or make a lot less of, key gluten proteins in their grains. (Gluten is a complicated mix of proteins that are stored in seeds of wheat, barley and rye, and only some – not all – of these proteins trigger the allergic reactions.)
But though they’ve found varieties that lack some of the important allergenic proteins, “None of the tested materials was completely nontoxic for celiac patients and thus could not be recommended for general consumption,” note authors of the current study.
Those authors, Shanshan Wen of Washington State University in Pullman and colleagues, tried a different approach. It hinged on a key enzyme – one that helps activate a whole set of genes that make the most problematic gluten proteins. Using a genetic engineering trick, they knocked out that enzyme. As a result, the seeds of the wheat they studied had sharply reduced levels of this set of problem proteins.
The authors say it’ll take more tinkering before they can create a line that eliminates the problem proteins entirely while keeping other non-problem ones in the seeds. But they write that they have a good chance of doing it and that the resulting wheat still should make decent bread for baking.
Next will come testing – in cell cultures, mice and gluten-sensitive apes.
This isn’t the only approach to new dietary solutions for celiac disease. Some scientists, for example, think it might be possible to develop oral enzyme therapies. These would digest away the bits of gluten that cause allergic reactions because they aren’t properly digested in the gut by natural digestive enzymes.
Others think it might be possible to desensitize celiac patients by feeding them tiny amounts of gluten and slowly ramping up the dose, an approach that’s been successful in some clinical trials, for example, in treating allergies to peanuts or milk.