Researchers at the Henry M. Golden School of Dental Medicine at Boston University were studying the breakdown of proteins in saliva in general when they came across an enzyme in a bacterium called Rothia that broke down gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye, as if it were Pac-Man. It was a happy accident that led to a new stream of study, says Eva Helmerhorst, the study’s senior author.
Enzyme Acted Like Pac-Man
“Once we found that, we immediately thought of celiac disease,” Helmerhorst said in an interview. In people with celiac disease, the presence of gluten damages the villi, tiny projections in the small intestine. Right now, the only treatment is to avoid gluten.
“We thought that maybe it could break up the gluten particle to the point that it does not cause an immune reaction,” she says.
Helmerhorst said researchers have already moved beyond the petri dishes and vials to study the effect of the enzyme on the tiny digestive systems of mice. In the process, they have also identified another bacterium, b. subtilis, which produces an enzyme similar to the one in Rothia bacteria.
“This particular enzyme is already being consumed in large quantities in Iapan in a fermented soybean dish called ‘natto,”’ she says. “In terms of getting future FDA approval for the enzymes, it’s a benefit if one is already considered food grade.”
If the current research pans out, the future may see the enzymes packaged in a pill form or added into a food.
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