A Modern Solution to Celiac Disease

Celiac disease as well as gluten intolerance is widespread amongst the population, but recently a team of talented researchers may have found the solution to their distress- genetically modified wheat. Researchers Cristina Rosella, Francisco Barrob, Carolina Sousac, and Ma Carmen Menad investigated ways to ‘silence’ protein coding genes that are responsible for triggering adverse immune responses in those with celiac disease.   Their research as recently published in the Journal of Cereal Science.  Jefferson Adams of the San Francisco Examiner discusses the team’s findings in his piece found on celiac.com:

“Their report acknowledges that creating strains of wheat with reduced gluten toxicity is difficult using conventional breeding methods, and that genetic modification, in particular a technology called RNA interference (RNAi), hold the greatest promise in reducing or ‘silencing’ the gluten proteins in wheat and other cereals. Such technology allows researchers to develop gluten-free wheat strains by adjusting the gluten fractions toxic to those with celiac disease.”

Adam’s describes this event as a “major turning point” for finding suitable lines of wheat that is digestible with celiac disease.

Overall, their objective was to create lines of wheat varieties through genetic modification to help the greater good of people with this disease or intolerance in both developed and developing parts of the world, he writes

“Their efforts to create celiac-friendly wheat varieties via genetic modification aims to solve a health problem that directly affects a large proportion of consumers, in developed as well as developing countries, and with higher consumer awareness.”

Finally, Adams as well as the research team highlights the potential concerns their efforts could face due to resistance fueled by global concerns around genetically modified foods.

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2 Responses to A Modern Solution to Celiac Disease

  1. Curt Becker says:

    Really important work… This is a horrible disease. Thanks for bringing the topic to our attention.

  2. Wheat gluten consists of a large family (perhaps over 100) of related proteins, with multiple peptide epitopes responsible for celiac disease. In addition, the identity of the different problematic epitopes is only partly known. While it is conceivable that a modest reduction in celiac-specific epitopes might be technically feasible, since people with celiac disease respond to traces of gluten in the parts per million range, I question whether a slight reduction in “celiac potential” would have a meaningful clinical benefit.

    Creating a crop plant, and gaining regulatory approval, with even a single genetic change is technically demanding and very expensive, and the challenge would increase for multiple, simultaneous genetic changes. In addition, for a highly-modified wheat, demonstration of clinical safety could add substantially to the cost of development: true wheat allergy (distinct from celiac disease) is a significant problem, so there is the possibility of creating new allergens as a result of the massive change in protein sequences. Even if technically feasible, such a modified wheat would most likely be a “medical food”, rather than something introduced into the general food supply (given the misguided objections of some vocal anti-GMO activists). Without widespread sales, such wheat would most likely only be available on prescription, and at a very high price.

    Single-gene modifications can be transferred to different genetic backgrounds by crossing with a desirable cultivar, but it is not obvious how this could be accomplished for multiple genetic changes.

    From a practical perspective, since the proline-rich proteins of wheat play an important role in the viscoelastic properties of bread, an added challenge would be to achieve a modified wheat with acceptable bread-making properties.

    Given that nutritious, palatable and cheap gluten-free foods are already available, I personally think that such an effort would be better spent on developing crops with improved nutritional profiles, suitable for the general public.

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