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Gluten-fighting pill for Celiac disease is on its way, thanks to UW Medicine researchers

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed an enzyme that eats up 99.97 percent of gluten in the stomach, and they hope the FDA will approve it as a pill to take before meals. (Creative Commons/Glory Foods)

There we were, just living our lives, eating bread and pasta and ice cream cones without a care in the world. And then, BAM! suddenly everyone went gluten-free.

Aside from health concerns, millions of people who have cut gluten out of their lives have done so because they have Celiac disease. University of Washington Medicine Researcher Ingrid Pultz says 1 percent of Americans have Celiac disease.

“People with Celiac disease mount an immune response against gluten that stimulates an inappropriate alarm in the body which causes inflammation,” Pultz explained. “It’s as if it detects the gluten as being harmful. It’s an inappropriate immune response.”

That inflammation can lead to major intestinal damage, malnutrition, neurological issues, and even cancer.

“One if the big issues for these patients is that, currently, the only treatment for Celiac disease is complete elimination of gluten from the diet,” she said.
“This is very difficult to achieve because gluten happens to be everywhere in modern food production. So Celiac patients get ‘gluten’d’ all the time.”

Which is why Dr. Pultz was excited to announce that she has helped developed an enzyme that will knock out 99.97 percent of gluten while it’s still in the stomach, before it hits the intestines. The drug still has to go through trials and be approved by the FDA, but she hopes it will be on the market to help people in a few years.

“This is something that we’d want people to be able to take in pill form, before a meal containing gluten,” Pultz said. “It would wipe out all the gluten before it can cause problems.”

So even if someone intentionally eats a gluten-free diet, if they took a pill they wouldn’t get sick if they accidentally ingested it.

The gluten dissolving enzyme was originally developed by University of Washington undergrad students, advised by Dr. Pultz in 2011 for an international competition called International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.

With their gluten fighting enzyme, called Kumamax, the UW team won, beating 164 other teams. This was actually the first time any team from the U.S. won this competition. And after all those students left for grad school, Dr. Pultz continued the research as her post-doc project.

She says the treatment is simple and wouldn’t necessarily have any side effects.

“It works very, very well,” she said.

But what about people who don’t have Celiac disease, who experience stomach pain and other ailments when they eat gluten? Would this pill work for them?

“The drug breaks down gluten so it depends on what the problem is with people with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity,” she explained. “If indeed it is these difficult-to-digest regions of gluten that are causing a problem in people with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, then yeah, the drug would work for those people.”

So sit tight, people with Celiac disease, just a few more years of clinical trials and FDA approval to go and the world will be your bagel.

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