Pill to let celiac sufferers eat gluten currently in development at University of Alberta

Beers may soon be poured again for those with celiac disease as a new pill is under development. (Reuters)
Beers may soon be poured again for those with celiac disease as a new pill is under development. (Reuters)

Some people will go out of their way to get their buddy a beer.

More than a decade ago, Edmonton researcher Hoon Sunwoo learned that one of his colleagues couldn’t drink ale because it contains gluten, which exacerbates symptoms of celiac disease. So the researcher dedicated the next 10 years of his career to find a way for his gluten-intolerant pal to enjoy the occasional brew.

The result is a pill that acts as an antibody against gluten. The natural supplement could drastically change the lives of people living with celiac disease and those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity by diminishing symptoms like bloating, cramps, and chronic diarrhea.

“I didn’t know much about celiac disease, but I remember one of my friends I was working with at the university couldn’t join us for beer after work because he couldn’t tolerate the gluten,” Sunwoo, a University of Alberta associate professor in the faculty of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, tells Yahoo Canada. “Gluten is everywhere; it’s a major part of the diet in North America. So it was very hard for him to go to a restaurant. And my friend’s toddler had a hard time going to birthday parties; she had to bring her own food.

“I thought, ‘why can’t we produce an antibody against gluten?’” he adds. “If we could do that, we could reduce symptoms when my friend wants to go for dinner or beer.”

Sunwoo and colleague Jeong Sim, a retired professor from U of A’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental sciences, developed a supplement from the yolks of chicken eggs that prevents the absorption of gliadin, a component of gluten that people with celiac disease have trouble digesting. 

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). In flour, it helps bread and other baked goods bind and prevents crumbling. It’s found in thousands of processed and packaged foods, some of them surprising sources. Gluten may be found in dressings, sauces, gravy, imitation fish, hot dogs, seasoned rice and snack foods, veggie burgers, and chicken broth.

“The supplement neutralizes the gluten in the stomach and protects the small intestine from the damage gliadin causes,” Sunwoo says.

Meant to be taken a few minutes before a meal, the pill is entering the second phase of clinical trials. If approved for use by Health Canada, it could be available to Canadians in approximately two years.

According to the Canadian Celiac Association, about one in 133 Canadians has celiac disease. Symptoms also include anemia, weight loss and fatigue.

Despite the supplement’s promise, it’s by no means a cure-all for celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Sunwoo stresses that it’s only capable of, and intended for, occasional use and temporary relief of symptoms.

That means that the booming gluten-free industry isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. The global gluten-free market is projected reach $6.8 billion USD by 2019, with North America contributing about 59 per cent of the share, according to market-research firm Markets and Markets. 

“This is not a prescription,” says Sunwoo. “We’re not competing with the gluten-free industry, because even gluten-free products contain a small amount of gluten. So there is still always a place for that.”

Although the supplement won’t rid people of the effects of celiac disease, it’s likely to be well-received, according to Sue Newell, operations manager of the Canadian Celiac Association.

“Some people say, ‘I’m happy with my gluten-free diet;’ other people say ‘hey, bring it on. Anything that might help me is a good thing,” Newell says. “As a supplement, it could provide some additional protection when eating in risky situations.

“Eating out in a restaurant, for example, is a real challenge when you have celiac disease,” she adds. “There’s no question you’re taking a risk. The odds are you will probably get sick in many, many cases.”

Food has to be prepared in a way that eliminates the chance of cross-contamination, for example.

“You can’t cook gluten-free pasta in the same water you cook regular pasta in,” Newell says. “You can’t cook vegetables in the pasta water, which is a common thing for restaurants to do.

“The odds are, with this supplement, you’re not going to be able to eat a whole pizza, but you could possibly eat a gluten-free pizza made in a risky environment and be comfortable. It’s not going to replace a gluten-free diet.”