In Search of a Gluten Game-Changer

December 14, 2016 12:00 PM
In Search of a Gluten Game-Changer

Poor gluten. This mixture of two proteins in wheat is essential to giving bread that chewy, elastic texture loved the world over. But for people with celiac disease, gluten takes a toll on their bodies – and a new generation of health-conscious citizens are questioning whether gluten may be bad for everyone.

Research can help cut through the hype, and a group of scientists at Kansas-based Heartland Plant Innovations has been working on developing a wheat that would be safe for people with celiac disease to consume.

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In theory, celiac-safe wheat could contain gluten, minus the reactive protein epitopes that cause the body’s immune system to produce antibodies, according to Chris Miller, director of wheat quality research for Heartland Plant Innovations, which is collaborating with the Kansas Wheat Commission at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center.

So far, it’s been a long, slow process so far, Miller says.

“Growing plants in the field is a slow process,” he says “Gathering the tissue, gathering the seed, getting the milling, getting all the product quality. It’s just been incredibly slow.”

Researchers are looking at 50 hard red winter wheat lines, 50 hard red spring wheat lines and wild relatives of wheat. Miller and his colleagues characterize varietal traits from the field, genotyping, end-product testing and documenting health and nutrition attributes.

Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations at Kansas Wheat, considers this “discovery research.”

“We’re not sure what we are going to find,” he says. “The first stage is the exploratory stage and getting a base knowledge about wheat proteins. There’s a lot of optimism, but [also] a lot of uncertainty.”

Kansas wheat farmers are funding the research through the Kansas Wheat Commission’s two-cent wheat assessment. Miller says that by the end of 2017, the researchers should have enough data and a proof-of-concept compiled to apply for additional funding opportunities. There may also be opportunities to collaborate with medical partners. The long-term goal is helping those with celiac disease to eat wheat products with no side effects.

“This is a study that’s focused for the good of all human health,” according to Jordan Hildebrand, program assistant at Kansas Wheat. “We’re doing research here that they aren’t doing anywhere else. The fact that Kansas wheat farmers took the initiative to fund the research showed their foresight and their desire to deliver a wholesome product for everyone.”

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