A team of scientists in Spain believe they are close to a breakthrough in creating a genetically modified strain of wheat that would be safe for people with celiac disease. The autoimmune disorder leaves sufferers unable to eat most of the proteins found in wheat and other cereals, commonly known as gluten. The disease basically causes an allergic reaction to gluten which can lead to severe illness, including vomiting, malnutrition, brain damage and even gut cancers. It’s estimated that about 7% of the population has celiac disease. It is a specific type of gluten proteins called gliadins that trigger the inappropriate immune response, but the team at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, think they are close to creating a strain of wheat that does not produce them. There are 45 different types of gliadin protein in wheat and the researchers have so far found 35 of them. Through genetic modification, the team has been able to remove 90% of wheat’s gladians. They have had the best success using CRISPR as this gene-editing technique can eliminate the gladian-producing genes entirely. The most stripped down strain they have created has proven to be used in making certain types of small loaf breads like baguettes and rolls. The researchers say they still need to disable more genes before their strain is suitable for making a flour safe for celiac sufferers, although what they’ve produced thus far has proven to reduce adverse reactivity by about 85%. That is enough to make bread eatable for people with less serious gluten sensitivities. The researchers think they are only a couple years away from having a wheat strain that will be safe for even the most sensitive celiac patients. Maintaining a gluten-free diet is a difficult task and generally brings with it much higher grocery bills because of specialized food products. Even those foods can become contaminated with traces of gluten, however, causing complications for celiac sufferers. It has been suggested that an intake of as little as 50 mg of gluten per day for 3 months can be sufficient to cause significant illness. The way gluten-free flours and fillers are currently produced often requires a lot of processing and added ingredients, but the products that they make are generally denser than something made with a traditional flour. Gluten, when mixed with water, is what causes dough to be elastic, which in turn creates a “fluffy” food like bread or cake. Thanks to the work of these Spanish scientists, it may not be long before celiac patients are able to consume the same type of baked-goodness that the rest of the population gets to enjoy! Keep in mind that the popularity of low-gluten diets for general health purposes has been on a steady rise over the past decade. It’s estimated that 1.76 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, but an estimated 2.7 million people in the U.S. have eliminated or reduced their consumption of gluten despite never having been diagnosed with the condition. That means there is a solid base market for this type of product and could end up being a good alternative for wheat farmers that are looking for a more lucrative crop. (Sources: New Scientist, Smithsonian)
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