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Using DARPA tools to find a pill for gluten intolerance

Posting in Government

One day, the gluten intolerant among us can just pop a pill before eating bread – just like the way lactase pills help people with lactose intolerance eat dairy.

And it’s thanks to funding from the U.S. military.

Between 2005 and 2009, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency invested in computerized methods to find medical defenses for chemical and biological warfare threats like Sarin nerve gas and anthrax, NPR reports.

These computerized techniques are used to develop better enzymes, faster.

David Baker’s lab at the University of Washington in Seattle used some DARPA money to fund its work, including a program called FoldIt, which enlists scientists to figure out which protein structure is the best one to solve certain biomedical problems.

Using FoldIt, UW’s Ingrid Swanson Pultz and Justin Siegel of the University of California, Davis, came up with an enzyme that could break down gluten in the stomach.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where wheat, rye, or barley products cause inflammation in the digestive tract when stomach enzymes break gluten down into smaller pieces, called peptides. A pill could eliminate gluten before it triggers the immune response – and help people absorb nutrients better.

Called KumaMax, the new enzyme broke down more than 95 percent of a gluten peptide implicated in celiac disease in acidic conditions like those in the stomach.

Siegel and Pultz have founded a company, Proteus Biologics, to bring it to market – but not until clinical testing shows the protein can degrade enough gluten fast enough in the gut to be useful.

Over 2 million Americans have celiac disease, and right now, a gluten-free diet is the only treatment.

The work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

[NPR, American Chemical Society news release]

Image: J. Fang

— By on January 14, 2013, 2:21 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure