For some people, daily bread can be poison. Recently, scientists have found the trigger for the disease called celiac sprue.
It's not an allergy to wheat, or even an intolerance. Celiac sprue is an autoimmune disease. As many as one in every 200 Americans suffers from it.
The culprit is gluten...a protein in wheat and other grains. When celiac sufferers eat gluten, their bodies' immune systems see the protein as a threat and attack it, along with parts of the small intestine the proteins attach to. The only cure is to completely avoid gluten, which is not so easy.
Recently, Stanford University chemical engineer Chaitan Khosla and his team turned up an exciting clue to a potential new treatment. They found that gluten contains a very long molecule the human digestive system cannot break down.
In most people, that's no biggie--(SOUND: cartoon-like munching) microorganisms inhabiting our gut do the job just fine. But in people with celiac sprue, the immune system goes on the rampage (SOUND: cartoon-like anger) before the microorganisms can get into the act.
If Khosla and company can use an enzyme they've derived from bacteria to help patients break down that big, long molecule, treatment might be similar to supplements taken orally by people who are lactose intolerant.
And so the day may come for celiac sufferers when eating bread might not cause that automatic bellyache.
"Imagine That!" covers projects funded in part by the U.S. government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you by you! Learn more at nsf.gov.