Gluten that is safe for coeliacs
A researcher from Wageningen University has investigated ways to develop gluten safe wheat to improve the quality of life for those suffering with coeliac disease (CD).
CD is an immune reaction to gluten that affects 1–2% of the population, and the only current remedy is a gluten-free diet, excluding wheat, barley and rye. Wheat grains contain gluten, a mixture of glutenin and gliadin proteins, which gives food such as bread its chewy texture. Most gliadins and part of the glutenins contain immunogenic epitopes, which are the actual trigger of the immune reaction, the university explained.
Wheat gluten is often added to many processed food products for their viscoelastic properties, and although all gluten genes can be removed from wheat, this reduces its baking quality. Gluten-free products also require numerous additives to adjust their texture and taste, resulting in less healthy and more expensive products than gluten-based equivalents.
Research by PhD student Aurélie Jouanin described an alternative use of gene editing that can develop wheat with safe gluten, as opposed to gluten-free. As a proof of principle, she generated wheat plants in which some gliadin genes were modified or removed. But there is a large number of gluten genes present in wheat and not all gluten genes have been targeted, so these edited wheat plants are not yet safe for CD patients. Jouanin has also developed methods to determine which genes have not yet been edited in order to work towards creating a safe wheat variety.
However, regulations in Europe may make it difficult to commercialise these products. For example, last year the European Court of Justice ruled that gene edited plants will be regulated in the same way as genetically modified (GM) organisms. Jouanin explained how these regulations are inconsistent in relation to plants, and suggested “the European Commission to review its position on the matter and to regulate gene editing based on scientific evidence regarding the generated products, and on the innovation principle as part of responsible research innovation initiatives”.
Some recently developed CRISPR approaches may result in faster development of wheat with gluten that do not cause an immune reaction. Jouanin suggested new gluten-free tests need to be developed, since the current ones will not be able to distinguish gluten stripped of immunogenic epitopes from regular gluten.
Bianca Rootsaert, Managing Director of the Nederlandse Coeliakie Vereniging, said: “Gluten-free wheat would be an extreme improvement of the quality of life of coeliacs. It will, however, be important for coeliacs to distinguish gluten-free wheat from ‘normal’ wheat, which will lead to stricter regulation of food packaging and ingredient information.”
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