A drug that breaks down gluten into harmless smaller molecules has shown success in randomized human trials, but even the company that makes it is concerned about exaggerated reports of how widely it can be used.
The drug, GluteGuard, is already on the market, but only as a “complementary medicine”, a category that means it does not require evidence that it actually works. Moreover, GluteGuard cannot replace a gluten-free diet for celiacs, for many of whom consumption of gluten can be life-threatening. Nevertheless, GluteGuard's makers, Glutagen, claim that it can ease the discomfort of those with milder reactions to the protein. Further trials are underway to find out how effective it might be, and whether it could be used as a back-up after accidental gluten consumption.
GluteGuard is based on the enzyme caricain, produced by the papaya plant. According to retired professor Hugh Cornell, caricain not only reduces gluten to smaller molecules, but further breaks down those products that negatively impact individuals affected by gluten.
Unfortunately, caricain is destroyed by the acidic environment of the stomach, so GluteGuard uses an enteric coat that resists acids, while breaking open in the alkaline conditions experienced in the small intestine, allowing the caricain to do its work.
The ideal anti-gluten treatment would be so effective that it would allow celiacs to eat a normal diet. Cornell doesn't expect GluteGuard to meet that standard. However, Cornell told IFLScience that even people who choose gluten-free foods often get exposed to small amounts of gluten through cross-contamination, and a drug that minimized the effects could help their bodies recover.