A Kansas researcher hopes to develop wheat varieties that people with celiac disease can eat.
Celiac disease causes extreme sensitivity to the gluten in wheat and some other foods.
In theory, celiac-safe wheat would still contain the proteins such as gluten necessary for making bread, but would have none of the reactive protein epitopes, which cause the body’s immune system to produce antibodies, said Chris Miller, director of wheat quality research for Heartland Plant Innovations in Manhattan, Kan. He is working with the Kansas Wheat Commission at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center.
Miller is measuring the variability for reactivity within a large pool of wheat lines, including commercial varieties and wild relatives. This helps determine whether any existing varieties with low levels of reactivity are already in the center’s collection.
Miller’s work came about when researchers discussed the need to address wheat’s role in celiac disease.
“We feel confident the gluten-free craze will fade out, but the medical condition will obviously continue,” Miller said in an email. “Most food allergies are protein-based, such as soy, milk, eggs, nuts, etc., which is no different from celiac disease. The issue is that most people can avoid nuts and even milk and eggs without too much disruption, but wheat is in everything and really difficult to avoid without major changes to diet and routine.”
Celiac disease affects roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3 million people, 97 percent of whom are undiagnosed, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
Variety development is not included in Miller’s current work, so it could be several years before a celiac-safe wheat is available commercially, he said.
The research uses standard breeding practices, although Miller said GMO technology would speed things up. The U.S. wheat industry is hesitant about developing a GMO wheat variety without acceptance from overseas customers.
“We just can’t take the risk of having a GMO solution sitting on the shelf with no ability to actually get it into the market,” he said. “I will say our work is compatible with GMO technology, and if by some stroke of luck the regulation changes, we won’t need to start from scratch. We will simply accelerate our progress.”
Washington State University Professor Diter von Wettstein is also working on wheat that celiac patients can eat. Miller is familiar with von Wettstein’s work, but says it’s a different approach.
“I think the problem of celiac disease is so big that it won’t be solved by a single group of researchers, so I support his effort to look at this from a different perspective,” Miller said.
Medical researchers are still trying to understand what triggers the disease, Miller said. Some patients have it from childhood, while others develop the disease later in life. This and better tests to diagnose the disease still need to be studied, he said.
Miller’s work, in general, is about understanding wheat protein, including agroeconomics, end-product quality and human health and nutrition.
“The overall theme is wheat improvement, so I can’t imagine a negative outcome for farmers or consumers,” he said. “If we can identify the underlying cause of celiac reactivity in the process, and we have the means to reduce it, we should be working towards those types of goals.”