In the works: a gluten-busting pill

By • Published: April 10th, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Have you noticed more people seem to be going gluten-free?

Gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, really rubs some people the wrong way. People with celiac disease suffer damage to the small intestine every time they eat or drink something that contains it. The damage can lead to malnourishment, digestive problems, decreased appetite, excess or too little weight and other problems.

Other people have a sensitivity to gluten and report gastrointestinal maladies, fatigue and headaches when they ingest it. Experts say these people don’t seem to sustain intestinal damage from gluten.

The most effective remedy for these conditions is a diet free of gluten. That means avoiding mainstream pizza, pasta, bread, baked goods, some condiments, beer and lots of other products.

Scientists are trying to give these people a break by developing a pill that would enable them to consume gluten with less backlash. Ideally, it would work like existing pills that alleviate problems for people who are lactose-intolerant and have trouble with dairy. Such pills help a person digest lactose, a component of all dairy foods.

There are several scientific teams working on the gluten-busting pill, each with its own approach. One strategy, perhaps the most interesting, is built on an enzyme scientists found in bacteria living in hot springs in Japan. A modified version of the enzyme dismantles the protein. The scientists hope it will do the same inside a human gut, although that hasn’t been tested yet.

At least one expert in celiac disease says the pills would not totally solve the problem. People who took one probably could eat a bit of food with gluten without negative results, but not a large amount.

For someone with celiac disease who wants to enjoy one or two of their favorite chocolate chip cookies, that might be just enough relief.