The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was created in 1958 to “prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.” Read: They develop things like the Internet, stealth bombers and reusable unmanned spacecrafts. And now, they may have come up with a surprising antidote for sufferers of celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the protein gluten in wheat, rye or barley damages the lining of the small intestine and creates inflammation. Enzymes in the stomach break down gluten into smaller pieces, known as peptides — but for sufferers of celiac disease, the peptides trigger an autoimmune response with painful symptoms. Currently, the only way to avoid the response is to steer clear of food that contain gluten.
So why would the research arm of the Pentagon, an agency that busies itself with high-tech wizardry, be concerned with who can or can’t eat pizza?
It’s all about the anthrax. Between 2005 and 2009, DARPA began looking into computerized methods to find medical defenses against chemical and biological warfare threats like Sarin nerve gas and anthrax, according to NPR. They use these computerized models to develop better enzymes, more quickly.
But they went a step beyond when they realized that if an enzyme could further break down the offending peptides in the stomach, it could lead to celiac patients being able to eat gluten-containing foods.
With the help of researchers Ingrid Swanson Pultz from the University of Washington in Seattle and Justin Siegel of the University of California at Davis, they found a naturally occurring enzyme that has some of the ideal properties for breaking down the peptides. The scientists modified the enzyme in the lab so that it would meet all of the required criteria. Using conditions created to mimic the stomach, the new enzyme, with the conveniently market-ready name of KumaMax, broke down almost all of the culprits implicated in celiac disease.
“These combined properties make the engineered [enzyme] a promising candidate as an oral therapeutic for celiac disease,” say the researchers. An oral therapeutic would serve those with celiac disease in much the same way that lactose pills help those with lactose intolerance.
And now Siegel and Pultz have created a company, Proteus Biologics, to make KumaMax available to the public — but that won't happen until more clinical testing shows the protein to be efficacious enough to actually be useful. And it could still take years to prove it's safe.
The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
MNN tease photo of bread wrapped in caution tape: Shutterstock