Around one percent of the world’s population has celiac disease. That means that one percent of humans can’t drink beer (the normal stuff, anyway). This was not good enough for scientist Hoon Sunwoo, who simply wanted to enjoy the sweet amber nectar with one of his friends who is afflicted with the disease. So what did he do? Embark on a 10-year endeavor to try and find a way to improve the quality of life of not just his friend, but others around the world with the genetic disorder. And he might have cracked it.
Together with colleague Jeong Sim, University of Alberta’s Sunwoo has developed a supplement pill that sticks to the problematic components of gluten that stir inappropriate reactions in the guts of celiacs, thus reducing the damage that would normally ensue from eating the stuff. The idea is that people could pop the pill before consuming products containing gluten, although it’s only a temporary fix for symptoms.
But first things first, what actually is celiac disease? Individuals afflicted with the digestive condition have adverse reactions to gluten, a composite of proteins found in wheat, namely glutenin and gliadin. This happens because their immune systems mistakenly identify these proteins as potential threats and so launch an attack against them. Ultimately, this causes damage to the surface of the small intestine, reducing the ability to absorb nutrients from food.
Symptoms range from abdominal pain to fatigue from malnutrition. After learning about these woes from a celiac friend, Sunwoo wondered if there could be a way to alleviate them so that once in a while, foods like cake, pasta and pizza could be enjoyed without feeling ill afterward.
Sunwoo has actually spent the last 20 years working on antibodies found in the yolks of chicken eggs, called immunoglobulin Y, which are produced following encounters with foreign substances. By exposing chickens to gluten, Sunwoo was able to stimulate the production of antibodies against both gliadin and glutenin, which were proven to be effective against mice in pre-clinical trials, he told IFLScience. Using egg yolk powder, the researchers ultimately came up with a pill that can be taken just five minutes before eating gluten-containing products.
“This supplement binds with gluten in the stomach and help to neutralize it, therefore providing defence to the small intestine, limiting the damage gliadin causes,” Sunwoo said in a statement.
“This is not treating the celiac disease or curing celiac disease. It’s just to try to help them improve their quality of life so when they want to socialize with peers or friends,” he told Edmonton AM.
He stresses that people should still stick to a gluten-free diet, but it could potentially allow people to occasionally cheat, even if just for a few hours.
The pill has already proven to be safe in clinical trials, so the next phase is to prove it actually works in people, which Sunwoo hopes to find out next year when the next stage of trials is expected to commence. Currently, Sunwoo explains to IFLScience, they know the theoretical amount of gluten that one pill can neutralize.
"We need to do more tests in humans to figure out if there is a limit to the amount of gluten that can be taken. It will almost certainly vary from person to person," he added. If all goes well, it could reach shelves in just a few years.