Scientists from Stanford University in California have identified a protein molecule in cereal grains that may be to blame for the digestive disorder celiac disease. What's more, the researchers also identified a type of enzyme that breaks down the irritating protein fragment, raising the possibility of a treatment for the disease. People with celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, must avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, oats and barley.
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder marked by an allergic reaction to gluten. The disease, which affects about 1 out of every 200 people, can cause a variety of symptoms, including diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and anemia. It can also interfere with the absorption of nutrients. The only treatment for the illness is a diet that strictly avoids gluten-containing foods.
In an article published in last week's issue of the journal Science, the researchers report that they have isolated a bit of gluten that seems to be the main trigger for celiac disease. Versions of this protein fragment, which does not break down during digestion, exist in all grains that are toxic to people with celiac disease but not in non-toxic grains. The protein bit triggered a response in immune cells taken from the gut of more than a dozen people with celiac disease.
But in encouraging news for people with the disease, the researchers found that this hardy protein fragment was susceptible to a type of bacterial enzyme called an endopeptidase, which broke down the protein. The effect of the enzyme on the gluten fragment raises the possibility of a treatment for celiac disease, according to the researchers. Rather than avoiding all foods that contain gluten, people with the disease might be able to take a pill containing an endopeptidase that would detoxify gluten.
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