A team of Washington State University researchers hopes to take a bite out of the gluten-free market by creating a variety of wheat with disease-fighting enymzes baked into foods.
"We are actually providing them, with this kind of dietary supplement, packed into the grain," said Sachin Rustgi, an adjunct assistant professor at WSU's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
Rustgi and a team of researchers scattered across the globe published their findings last month in the journal Functional & Integrative Genomics.
Their genetically modified variety of wheat is intended to assist the estimated 3 million Americans living with celiac disease, a condition that causes the body's immune system to attack the digestive track when gluten is eaten. The disease has been linked to a greater risk of serious health problems, including malnutrition, diabetes and colon cancer.
Putting the enzymes inside the wheat is intended to create a sort of firewall that stops that attack from occurring, Rustgi said. The products also would contain vitamins and minerals that are lacking in gluten-free products or that are foregone entirely when avoiding gluten.
"They are not having enough fibers and minerals," Rustgi said. "You are eventually developing a deficiency, eating all those gluten-free products."
Those deficiencies can result in lethargy and headaches from a lack of carbohydrates, said Korrin Fotheringham, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwood Nutrition based in downtown Spokane.
"The brain's primary source of energy is glucose, a type of carbohydrate," said Fotheringham. Those with physically demanding jobs need to consume carbohydrates throughout the day to keep their energy levels up, she said, something that can be difficult on a diet that avoids wheat- and grain-based products.
Rustgi, a native of India, is now based at Clemson University in South Carolina, and his research team includes professionals working in Chile, China and Europe. Rustgi first became interested in the problem growing up in India, where the issue of wheat intolerance was earlier diagnosed as a type of seasonal sickness due to the cyclical nature of south Asian diets.
"They misdiagnose it as 'summer diarrhea,' " Rustgi said. "In summers, they eat wheat bread, and in winters they eat corn bread, so the problem gets corrected in winter."
The research team is creating a form of wheat that is genetically modified, a phrase that has become charged in the push for branded all-natural products by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also means there won't have been long-term studies about any potential health effects of the modified food, something that would give medical professionals at the California-based Celiac Disease Foundation pause before recommending the wheat variety to patients, said Marilyn Grunzweig Geller, chief executive officer of the foundation.
"It has to be tested, and there has to be peer-reviewed results that would give a confidence level for anyone to recommend it moving forward," Geller said.
While the early results from the WSU team were successful enough to prompt publication and further tests on the feasibility of growing the wheat, lab tests showed the enzymes did not break down all of the disease-causing gluten under simulated digestion conditions. The test was about 72 percent successful, according to researchers.
"The types of things that our medical advisory board would say, 'Interesting, but talk to us a little further down the road,' " said Geller, who praised the research team for tackling an issue that she said faces a stigma due to the rise of the gluten-free fad diet, adopted by some even without the symptoms of celiac disease.
"People with celiac disease have a four-time greater risk of intestinal cancer, and double the risk of cardiovascular disease, whether or not you're on the gluten-free diet," Geller said. "This is a real disease."
"It is every bit as serious as Type 1 diabetes," she continued. "But you would think it's lactose intolerance in terms of how it's treated in America."
Growing the wheat for human consumption is still a long ways off, said Rustgi. One of the major obstacles that remains is keeping the disease-fighting enzymes intact when the wheat is subjected to high levels of heat -- say, when a baker puts dough containing the wheat into an oven to bake bread.
"We did some preliminary tests that suggest that about 90 degrees Celsius is when it actually starts to show reduced activity, if not completely abolished," Rustgi said. That equates to roughly 195 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, well below temperatures typically used to commercially bake bread.
The next step is to test the viability of the wheat growing in the fields. Limited testing has already occurred on the Palouse, Rustgi said. If successful, the researchers would move forward with feeding tests to determine if a commercially viable product can be grown and processed for human consumption.
"It will take a couple of years," he said. "There are multi-parted trials."