PULLMAN – WSU researcher Diter von Wettstein has been awarded a four-year, $837,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to further his work on developing wheat varieties safe to eat for people who have Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic digestive disease and autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. Symptoms are broad, ranging from cramps and diarrhea to malnutrition. The disease is triggered by consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Currently, the only treatment for people who have Celiac disease is to adopt a gluten-free diet, eliminating all wheat, rye and barley-based foods. Making such a diet more difficult, gluten is also used as a filler or binder in many additional food and non-food items, such as deli-meats, licorice, medicines, vitamins and even the adhesive on stamps and envelopes.
 
“Medical experts at the National Institutes of Health have declared urgency in dealing with the most food-sensitive intestinal condition in humans, and require faster and more decisive methods such as transgenic breeding,” Von Wettstein said.

Von Wettstein and his team have discovered a fully viable, lysine-rich mutant which lacks gliadin-type proteins in barley, showing the way to make Celiac-safe wheat. Lysine is an amino acid essential for an optimal diet, but typically deficient in wheat.

His team has partnered with Arcadia Biosciences, a biotech company based in Seattle

to identify specific mutations in genes affecting the gliadin-type prolamins in gluten protein. Specifically, it is the gliadins that cannot be digested and eventually cross the intestinal wall, causing the damaging T-cell response to the intestinal lining. Fortunately, it has been shown that eliminating the gliadins does not compromise wheat’s baking qualities.

“Creating new cultivars of wheat, arguably the most important crop grown, having increased lysine and lacking gliadins will be of tremendous benefit not only for sufferers of Celiac disease, but for all consumers of wheat and wheat products,” said Von Wettstein.

Von Wettstein holds the R.A. Nilan Distinguished Professorship in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

For more information about Celiac disease, visit www.celiac.org, the Web site of the Celiac Disease Foundation.