Researchers at Kansas-based Engrain are working through a process that they hope will lay the groundwork for the creation of celiac-safe wheat.
The study is led by Chris Miller, Engrain’s senior director of research, and will result in a comprehensive study of the wheat proteins related to celiac disease. This information could allow scientists to target the genes responsible for those wheat proteins, and eventually, the possibility for celiac-safe wheat production.
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The research will look at wheat cultivars that are currently seeded in Kansas, historically popular varieties, new experimental lines and wild relatives. Through a process called antibody staining, Miller will then rank the cultivars on reaction severity (a test that can be used as wheat research progresses). Then, in the second step, he’ll look at isolating and sequencing the reactive proteins. The project is in its first year, of two.
The Demand for Gluten-Free
Research into celiac-friendly wheat has no doubt been spurred on by increases in demand. Over the span of five years (2008 to 2012), the gluten-free market in Canada had a compound annual growth rate of more than 26%, according to Packaged Facts. In 2012, sales were estimated by various sources from $27 milion and $460 milion. Suggestions indicate that global growth in demand will continue well into 2016 for the world, and perhaps into 2018 for Canada.
A portion of this demand is from people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that occurs in about 1-2% of the population. For people with this condition, consuming even minute amounts of gluten can cause damage to the small intestine.
“It’s not really just developing a single wheat variety that might be safe for [people with celiac disease] to eat,” Miller said. “What we learn from it could be introduced into all wheat varieties, so that all wheat that’s developed could be safe for all people. I think that’s really what our hope would be.”
Celiac-Safe, Not Gluten-Free
Much to the dismay of many media outlets, wheat varieties that emerge from this research will be deemed “celiac-safe,” not “gluten-free.” Using the information provided by Miller, researchers will be able to eliminate the proteins known to cause the worst human celiac reaction through selective breeding. Lowering the level of reaction even further, according to the Kansas Wheat Commission, will require gene editing to render specific amino acids as non-digestive or non-allergenic. That means people with celiac disease might just be able to enjoy a little gluten in their bread.
The research is supported by a $112,500 contribution from the Kansas Wheat commission for this fiscal year, with another $125,000 request for the next fiscal year.
Engrain is a company that provides enzymes and ingredients to the global baking and milling industries.