Celiac sufferers are given a glimpse of hope that they can now partake of foods made from wheat with the news that scientists are trying to create wheat that doesn’t contain gluten via a gene-editing technique.
People who have celiac disease are those who are genetically-predisposed to having severe autoimmune allergic reactions when they ingest gluten – specifically the strain gliadin, a component of gluten which is responsible for giving bread the ability to rise properly when baking. The allergic reactions can prompt intestinal damage, especially in the small intestine.
Around one in 100 people worldwide have this disease, with one percent or three million of the American population being afflicted with this condition.
Researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain have made a new type of wheat that contains only 15 percent of the gliadins in normal wheat. They are using the Crispr-Casr9 gene-editing technique – a genetic tool which was first introduced in 2013 that can “cut and paste” small sections of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – to get rid of genes that form the gliadin proteins.
The gene-editing “tool kit” is composed of a small piece of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and an enzyme protein called Cas9. The RNA component can link to a specific DNA sequence – this time the ones that form gliadin proteins – and then rip through the strands of DNA like a pair of molecular scissors.
“Up to 35 different genes were mutated in one of the lines of the 45 different genes identified in the wild type, while immunoreactivity [to gluten] was reduced by 85 percent,” said Dr. Francisco Barro, lead author of the study that was published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
The team is trying to do away with the remaining 10 genes to ensure that gliadin proteins will not be produced.
However, not everyone is a fan of Crispr, with others going so far as to say it is like “playing God”.
“I think this is a price that must be paid for the many benefits [that] gene-editing crops can bring to the agricultural space,” said Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research president and plant biologist David Stern.
At present, celiac sufferers get by with proper discipline and a promise to themselves that they will only partake of a gluten-free diet, which include foods and beverages that has a gluten content which is less than 20 parts per million. (Related: Gluten-free diet improves brain function, intestinal health in celiacs.)
Gene-editing in embryos is another angle that scientists are willing to look at, in their fight to vanquish preventable diseases. However, moral and ethical questions hound this step, and amendments to international laws would be needed before such treatments could be plausible.
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