New Scientist reports with hope for celiac-disease sufferers on a new breed of wheat that’s genetically modified not to produce inflammation-causing gluten:
Gluten is the general term for all the proteins in wheat and related cereals. During baking, these proteins link up to form elastic chains, which is what holds breads and cakes together as they rise.
But some people have an autoimmune condition called coeliac disease. Their immune systems respond incorrectly to gluten, which damages the gut lining and can lead to diarrhoea, vomiting, malnutrition, brain damage and even gut cancers.
Not all gluten proteins trigger this response, though: the main culprit is a group called gliadins. So Francisco Barro’s team at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, set about getting rid of them.
So Barro’s team next tried using CRISPR gene-editing to get rid of the genes entirely. This is a huge task because there are no fewer than 45 copies of the gene for the main gliadin protein that causes problems. Nevertheless, Barro’s team report that they have already managed to knock out 35 of the 45 genes.
More genes need to be disabled before the CRISPR strain is ready for testing, but it should be worth all the effort: the team have already shown that the GM wheat strain makes an acceptable bread.
Small trials of the GM wheat involving 10 and 20 people with coeliac disease are already being carried out in Mexico and Spain.