A new variety of wheat that would be safe for celiac patients to eat is under development, but researchers say years of testing remain before it could be commercially available.
Sachin Rustgi, an assistant professor of molecular breeding at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and a Washington State University adjunct faculty member, foresees at least three to five more years of testing ahead.
The project was begun at WSU, where the initial wheat varieties were developed. A detailed biochemical analysis was done at Clemson, according to a WSU press release.
Researchers introduced new DNA into wheat, developing a variety that contains a “gluten-busting” enzyme, or glutenase, from barley and another from the bacterium Flavobacterium meningosepticum. These enzymes break down gluten proteins in the human digestive system.
Since most wheat products are baked at high temperatures, Rustgi’s team is now developing heat-stable variations of the enzymes.
The new genotype is still at the research stage and has not been approved for sale.
Scientists tested gluten extracts from the experimental grain and found that it had far lower levels of the gluten proteins, according to WSU. The enzymes reduced the amount of indigestible gluten by as much as two-thirds.
More than 2 million people in the U.S. suffer from celiac disease. The body’s immune system reacts when someone with celiac disease eats gluten — the protein in wheat that gives breads, pasta and cereal their chewy texture. Celiac patients suffer nausea, cramps, malnutrition and other health problems when they eat food that includes gluten.
There is no treatment for celiac disease other than avoiding foods made with wheat or taking an enzyme supplement with every meal.
“I have talked with many (celiac patients) and they have all been willing to try anything that is suitable for them,” Rustgi told the Capital Press. “They wish to have something that is wheat that they can eat.”
The new wheat variety will require approval from the USDA for commercial release and would need to be accepted by consumers, Rustgi said.
“It’s a great advancement in research, a novel discovery and a novel approach,” said Rich Koenig, interim chairman of WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “But it’s got several challenges ahead before it would be accepted and commercially available.”
The wheat is a genetically engineered, which is generally not accepted in the marketplace, Koenig said.
However, Rustgi is also using CRISPR gene editing technology to remove the gluten genes from wheat, Koenig said.
CRISPR technology allows researchers to edit wheat’s DNA and doesn’t involve adding DNA from outside organisms. The technology is widely used by researchers around the world.
Between that and adding the enzymes, Rustgi and his team should be able to come up with a commercially acceptable option, Koenig said.
“This is a research tool, research lines that have been developed, but certainly a really important scientific advancement to be able to do what they’ve done,” he said. “Hopefully, one day it will provide a variety of wheat that will be safe for celiac patients and accepted in the marketplace, but we’re a number of years away from that yet.”
Previous reduced-gluten wheat lines in the research process were still susceptible to gluten contamination from regular wheat, Rustgi said. This line doesn’t have the same risk, he said.
“It can actually take care of any contamination at any level,” he said.
The new wheat could also benefit consumers without gluten sensitivity, Rustgi said.
“Even the healthy individuals cannot completely digest gluten, they need to excrete it out,” he said. “These enzymes help you digest it better. Maybe some of the gastric problems we face might actually be alleviated, I believe.”
Scientists elsewhere in the world are also working on the gluten problem, including a project in Kansas. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University doctoral candidate Aurélie Jouanin recently wrote her thesis about also using gene editing processes, which may lead to faster development of wheat with gluten that does not cause an immune reaction, according to the university.