Calgary scientists have made a breakthrough that could help celiac patients digest gluten with the help of an enzyme from bug-eating pitcher plants.
Pitcher plants are like “disposable stomachs” that are filled with an enzyme-rich liquid that helps them digest insect prey, explained lead researcher David Schriemer.
The professor at the University of Calgary says preliminary research shows the enzymes in these so-called monkey cups are “enormously potent” in breaking down gluten, and could work in a human stomach.
Schriemer said in a few years’ time, people with celiac disease could take a pill containing these enzymes, which would allow them to fully break down gluten.
“The idea here is that you would take it like Beano,” he said.
“We’ve taken it all the way through to animal trials at this point, and it seems to work.”
Retirement operation in B.C. helps out
Each pitcher plant holds just 0.5 millilitres of liquid.
To collect enough for their study, Schreimer and his colleagues enlisted the help of three retired women in B.C.’s Lower Mainland who “had a fascination” for carnivorous sundews, Venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
These women dedicated an entire greenhouse of roughly 1,000 individual pitchers, each about the size of a thumb, Schreimer said.
The University of Calgary researchers supplied those women with vials of fruit flies to stimulate the plants, and the women tapped off small amounts of fluids on a regular basis.
After six months, they had collected six litres — enough for the researchers to complete their studies.
How celiac disease works
Celiac disease is caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, which is a mixture of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley.
A person who has celiac disease is unable to fully digest those proteins, and the products left behind by this partial digestion can trigger a toxic response, where antibodies attack internal organs such as the small intestine.
This in turn can reduce the person’s ability to absorb other nutrients including iron, folate, calcium, vitamin D, protein, fat and other food compounds.
Approximately one in every 100 people in Canada suffers from this disease, according to Health Canada.
There is no cure for the disease. Treatment is a strict, gluten-free diet for life.