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WSU crop scientist seeks celiac-safe wheat

Washington State University researcher Diter von Wettstein has been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to begin developing strains of wheat that will be safe for people with celiac disease to eat.

Celiac disease can appear at any time in life, often triggered by surgery, viral infection or severe stress. Nearly 1 percent of Americans — about 2 million people — have the autoimmune disease, in which gluten proteins from wheat, barley or rye cause the immune system to attack hair-like structures called villi that line the small intestine.

When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, the villi are “erased away like with a razor blade,” says von Wettstein. In addition to being very painful, loss of the villi hinders the absorption of nutrients and leads to symptoms ranging from cramps and diarrhea to anemia, osteoporosis, fatigue and infertility.

Currently, the only way celiac sufferers can avoid symptoms is lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. They can’t eat or drink anything containing gluten. Most pastas and breads are out, as is beer. So are many processed items in which gluten is used as a filler or binder, such as deli meats, jelly beans, frozen yogurt, vitamin tablets and the adhesive on stamps and envelopes.

The $100,000 grant comes from NIH’s Small Business Technology Transfer program and will be shared with Arcadia Biosciences, an agricultural biotechnology company with facilities in Seattle, Phoenix and Davis, Calif.

In the new study, Arcadia scientists will identify strains of wheat that have mutations affecting a gluten protein called gliadin that has been implicated in celiac disease. Von Wettstein will then grow plants from the candidate strains and test their gliadins for the ability to stimulate cultured immune cells to become killer T cells, as they do in celiac sufferers. When he finds a form of the protein that does not provoke a celiac-like reaction, he will generate more wheat seeds that carry the same mutation. The most promising new strains will eventually be tested for safety in food products.

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 website of the Celiac Disease Foundation.

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