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Celiac Disease: New Hope for a Pill Treatment?

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How effective might the enzyme be? "For some people, even flour in the air makes them stop breathing. Some are very sensitive, and in some it just upsets their stomach a little," Siegel said. "For those who are hypersensitive, this probably is not going to solve the problem, but it would allow them to go to dinner, and in case any gluten ended up in their meal, they wouldn't have to worry about it."

"For those less sensitive, they could pop one before each meal and eat anything they want," he added.

The process of identifying the precise trigger for a disease or condition and engineering a drug to circumvent the disease-causing process is part of what some call the personalized medicine revolution, Siegel said. "We can design a small molecule, a pill, that can be specific to an exact target and have few side effects, if any," he said.

Some experts identified limitations to the research.

"This is the earliest phase, and you now have to show that it actually breaks down the gluten peptides that trigger a response in the stomach at a speed that will protect the human," said Dr. Joseph Murray, a professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology and the department of immunology at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn. "Let's see how it goes with a whole slice of bread."

Murray said that dismantling 95 percent of the protein component that is thought to trigger celiac disease may still not be enough to provide celiac patients protection. "It will probably be helpful to someone who gets a low-level exposure [to glutens] by accident," he said.

But celiac disease is a common problem, with about 2 million to 3 million Americans suffering from it. "People need alternatives, and this is an example of the scientific community taking novel approaches to helping people with celiac disease," Murray said.

More information

Learn more about celiac disease from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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