Berlin, 8 December 2016 – Dr Carmen Lamacchia, a researcher at the University of Foggia in Italy, claims to have developed a method for making the gluten in grains harmless to coeliac patients. However, conclusive studies have not yet been conducted as to whether grains processed with this new method are actually tolerated by people with coeliac disease. The studies published so far* are the subject of intense discussions within the scientific community and have been widely reported by the media. If the innovative method can be successfully implemented, it could make the lives of people with coeliac disease much easier. In any case, it would have an impact on the food market, which has introduced a broad range of gluten-free products over the past several years.
There are an estimated 800,000 people in Germany who suffer from coeliac disease, a chronic intestinal disorder. These individuals react to gluten, which the immune system mistakenly considers harmful. The only treatment currently available is a lifelong gluten-free diet. Since gluten is found in many products, people with coeliac disease must avoid many foods or rely on special, gluten-free products.
ECARF spoke with Dr Lamacchia about her solution for making gluten tolerable for coeliac patients.
E: How does your method work to make gluten harmless for coeliac patients?
CL: Whole, hydrated wheat grains are briefly exposed to a high temperature in the microwave. This causes significant changes in the gluten proteins, such as reduced antigenicity1 and immunogenicity2 of the gluten.
E: According to EU Regulation 41/2009, a gluten-free product suitable for the diet of a coeliac patient may not contain more than 20 mg of gluten per kilogram. The levels in your heat-treated wheat are significantly higher. Nonetheless, you assume that the heat-treated grains can be consumed by coeliac patients without any harmful effect on their health. Why?
CL: This technology is disruptive and leads to changes in the wheat gluten protein. The immunogenicity of most of the epitopes3 involved in coeliac disease is drastically reduced. The aim of the method is not to reduce the amount of gluten, but instead to alter its chemical properties in order to detoxify the toxic epitopes. It is a qualitative rather than a quantitative effect; the amount of gluten is no longer relevant.
The objective of further studies is to understand the molecular changes that occur and how these changes affect the digestibility, incidence and secondary digestion of potential antigenic fragments. Extensive immunological and clinical trials are also being conducted in order to evaluate the reactivity of coeliac patients to these products.
E: Have you tested this hypothesis on trial subjects? If so, how large was your study and which factors were investigated? Are there any initial results?
CL: At the moment we are conducting clinical trials focussed on the reactivity of coeliac patients to the products.
E: Are the taste and baking properties of the wheat altered by the heat treatment?
CL: Although the microwave treatment leads to fundamental changes in the properties of the gluten, most of the malleable characteristics of the gluten are retained in the flours, making it possible to sour it and produce bread with excellent sensory properties.
E: Can people who are allergic to cereal grains also benefit from your method?
CL: We don’t know yet. Part of our work at the moment is devoted to understanding the potential and scope of our method.
E: Can your method be used on all types of gluten-containing grains?
E: Some coeliac sufferers have reacted cautiously to your discovery. Why do you think that is?
CL: Our new method is polarising – some are for it, some are against it. We are trying to gain social acceptance of this new technology so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of a gluten-rich diet.
E: You founded the company New Gluten World (NGW) together with your partners. What is the mission of the company?
CL: The mission of NGW is to introduce the first ‘gluten-friendly’ method to the international market. It would go a long way toward overcoming the nutritional dividing line that separates people with coeliac disease, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity. It would help improve not only the physical but also the psychological and economic well-being of these patients.
We thank Dr. Lamacchia for this interview. It was conducted by Matthias Colli / ECARF.
 Antigenicity refers to the ability of a substance to bind to human antibodies. A substance with low antigenicity is not recognised by the body and therefore not rejected.
 Immunogenicity is the ability of the antigen to trigger an immune response (see also Antigenicity).
 An epitope is the part of the antigen molecule that can trigger an immune response.
Lamacchia C., Landriscina L., D’Agnello P. Changes in wheat kernel proteins induced by microwave treatment. Food Chemistry, 2016 Apr 15;197(Pt A):634-40. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.11.01
Lamacchia C., Di Luccia A., Gianfrani C. Method for the detoxification of gluten proteins from grains of cereals. BioVariaCongress, Europe’s top technologies, Munchen, Germany. 2015; available at http://www.biovaria.org/past-event/technologies.
L. Landriscina, P. D’Agnello, A. Bevilacqua, M.R. Corbo, M. Sinigaglia and C. Lamacchia. Impact of Gluten Friendly technology on wheat kernel endosperm and gluten protein structure in seeds by light and electron microscopy. Food Chemistry(2016),http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.11.031
A. Bevilacqua, A. Costabile, T. Bergillos-Meca, I. Gonzalez, L. Landriscina, E. Ciuffreda, M.R. Corbo, M., Sinigaglia and C. Lamacchia. (2016). Impact of gluten-friendly bread on the metabolism and function of in vitro gut microbiota in healthy humans and coeliac subjects.PLoS One. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162770.