The increase in the number of Coeliac patients in the last fifty years is partly caused by an increase in certain gluten proteins in modern wheat varieties. This is the contention of Hetty van den Broeck, who compared the presence of toxic gluten proteins in modern and in traditional wheat varieties.
She compared the presence of two well-known gluten proteins which affect patients: Glia-a9 and Glia-a20, found in 36 modern wheat varieties of breeder Limagrain and fifty old country varieties of the Netherlands Centre for Genetic Resources (CGN). Among the modern varieties, only one was found to have a low concentration of these toxic gluten proteins, while the rest had high gluten concentrations. Among the traditional species, less pathogenic glutens were present. Her results were published at the end of July in the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics.
Wheat breeding is not the only reason for the rise of Coeliac disease, suspects Van den Broeck. Wheat consumption increase and better disease identification methods also contribute to this rise. She advocates controlled breeding to cut down on the amount of toxic gluten in bread wheat. 'Nobody has ever paid any attention to gluten intolerance during wheat breeding; people are only concerned with yields and baking qualities.'
Reducing the amount of gluten in bread wheat is far from simple. There are more than fifty different Glia-a proteins in an average wheat variety. Moreover, gluten proteins have an important role to play: they make wheat dough airy and are needed for it to rise. 'You can't just leave all of them out.' However, one protein is more toxic than another. 'Glia-a9 is a very persistent gluten protein, which more than fifty percent of Coeliac patients are sensitive to', adds Van den Broeck.
Together with Limagrain, Wageningen researchers are trying to develop a new bread wheat by combining wheat varieties which have less toxic gluten proteins with older varieties. This breeding company participates in the Coeliac Disease Consortium where plant scientists work together with several university hospitals and companies. 'The university hospital Leiden and DSM search for medicines against gluten intolerance; we try to prevent gluten intolerance by developing safe wheat species', says the PhD student. She hopes to graduate in November in developing Coeliac-safe wheat. 'We know where to start, and the big question is: what will the breeding companies do about this?