There is good news for people with celiac disease: An international team of researchers are in the early stages of developing a new form of genetically engineered wheat with specialized enzymes that break down gluten. The modified grain may allow people suffering from the illness to enjoy things like bread and pasta again.
About 1 percent of people worldwide, including more than 3 million Americans, suffer from celiac disease. For people with celiac, the protein gluten found in wheat, rye, and barley triggers an immune response that, over time, damages the small intestine. While most people easily excrete the indigestible protein, the body of a person with celiac treats it as a foreign invader. It triggers an inflammatory immune response that can lead to digestive difficulties and an inability to absorb nutrients from foods. The new variety of wheat releases enzymes that become active when consumed and break down gluten in the small intestine, preventing an immune response.
The new grain, however, has some skeptics. Chantelle Kern, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2007, fears genetically modified foods may cause harmful side effects. “If I was able to eat wheat again I think I would be skeptical, as the food would be genetically modified and that is a very controversial subject,” she told the Genetic Literacy Project. —J.B.