For people with celiac disease, everyday foods such as bread, pizza crust and muffins are potential enemies. But scientists anticipate that some day a simple “pill of hope” could help prevent the digestive upsets caused by ingesting the gluten in wheat, rye or barley products.
Researchers have re-engineered a naturally occurring enzyme, kumamolisin-As, to break down gluten in the stomach into much smaller protein pieces, called peptides. Researchers say that these are less likely to trigger the autoimmune response that can create a wide range of painful and irritating symptoms.
According to the study, which was published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the re-engineered enzyme, named KumaMax, appears to be highly effective, at least in a test tube. It dismantled more than 95 percent of a gluten peptide that is thought to cause celiac disease.
An enzyme is a protein that performs a chemical reaction. Proteins are the workhorses in every cell of every living thing, and their function is defined by their shape and structure. In this case, the researchers re-engineered the natural enzyme to recognize the peptide that triggers celiac disease and modified the protein in the laboratory so it would survive the acidic stomach environment.
We did the engineering to change the genes and sent that into standard microorganisms to create the protein,” said lead study author Justin Siegel, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, Davis.
The next step is to show that the enzyme is not toxic and functions as designed in animals.
It shouldn’t be toxic; it’s just a protein you’re eating,” Siegel said.
How effective might the enzyme be?
For some people, even flour in the air makes them stop breathing. Some are very sensitive, and in some it just upsets their stomach a little. For those who are hypersensitive, this probably is not going to solve the problem, but it would allow them to go to dinner, and in case any gluten ended up in their meal, they wouldn’t have to worry about it. For those less sensitive, they could pop one before each meal and eat anything they want,” he added.
Celiac disease is a common problem, with about 2 million to 3 million Americans suffering from it.
People need alternatives, and this is an example of the scientific community taking novel approaches to helping people with celiac disease,” said Dr. Joseph Murray, a professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology and the department of immunology at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.