The best thing since sliced bread for coeliac sufferers

06 September 2010

It may be possible to prevent coeliac disease by developing new types of wheat, claim Dutch Scientists who have carried out an in-depth study of the genetic make up of a wide variety of wheats.

Coeliac disease is characterised by inflammation of the small intestine caused by intolerance to gluten found in wheat, rye and barley. It is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered when part of the antigen, known as an epitope, is recognised by white blood cells, causing an immune response. At present, the only treatment for this disease is a strict adherence to a gluten free diet. However, a team led by Hetty van den Broeck at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands thinks that their research could contribute to the development of safer foods for coeliac sufferers.

Van den Broeck's team have tested gluten protein extracts from over 100 durum wheat varieties from all over the world to quantify the level of coeliac causing epitopes. Durum wheat evolved from the combination of two grass species and is different to bread wheat as it has four sets of chromosomes rather than six. Van den Broeck found it has less coeliac epitopes than bread wheat - which has evolved more recently from combination of durum wheat with a third grass species. But, as a result of breeding and selection, commercially sold durum wheat nearly always contains some bread wheat and so the levels of white blood cell stimulatory epitopes can vary greatly.

Wheat with lower numbers of antigens could aid the disease

'With our research, we can contribute to the prevention of coeliac disease by developing wheat that has reduced numbers of stimulating epitopes,' explains Van den Broeck. 'If we can find a wheat that is very low in coeliac diseases epitopes, this could be used for pasta preparation to benefit patients.'

Domenico Lafiandra, an expert in genetic characterisation of wheat storage proteins at the University of Tuscia, Italy says the paper addresses a task which has long been pursued by wheat scientists. 'Given the impossibility to remove all the gluten components without affecting end use characteristics of flour or semolina, identification of lines with reduced levels of coeliac epitopes, may prove more effective in delaying or preventing the onset of the disease in the part of the population that is genetically susceptible,' he adds.

This could also open up the possibility to develop new types of bread wheat, says Van den Broeck. Also, specific molecular techniques could be applied to bread wheat to eliminate or modify only the part that results in most of the coeliac epitopes.

Philippa Ross

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