Wheat may be back on the menu for coeliacs

Gene manipulation techniques are being used to develop new strains of wheat with 90% of the gliadin proteins associated with coeliac disease removed. Research into the non-transgenic wheat is being carried out at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain, while UK company PBL-Ventures is working with North American investors to market products made with the new wheat strains, which are said to make ‘an acceptable bread’.

Gliadins are a class of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. These proteins play a central role in the quality of many baked goods made from cereal flour, being largely responsible for the dough rising and maintaining its structure during baking. Because the new wheat strains contain only small amounts of these proteins, the flour is not of high enough quality to make large loaves of comparable quality to those made using normal wheat flour, but according to a spokesperson at PBL-Ventures, smaller buns and baguettes are ‘better than anything [currently] on the gluten-free shelves’.

Researchers have used gene editing to remove 35 out of the 45 genes in the wheat DNA that generate gliadin proteins. However, more of these genes need to be knocked out before the new wheat varieties are likely to be ready for commercialisation. At this stage, small trials of the new wheat involving 10 and 20 people with coeliac disease are being carried out in Mexico and Spain through the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, with results said to be very encouraging.

The researchers working on the low-gluten, transgene-free wheat lines suggest that as well as being used to produce low gluten foods, the plant stock may serve as source material to introduce low gluten traits into elite wheat varieties.

Reference: Sánchez-León et al. 2017 Plant Biotechnology Journal, DOI: 10.1111/pbi.12837

Download the Open Access paper here.

Additional reporting: New Scientist