Science Friday: What’s Up in Gluten-Free Research?

Why yes, this IS a picture of Lemmiwinks. Read on to see why.

A lot of times, I’ll collect little tidbits that I want to share with you — but that aren’t quite juicy enough to build a whole post out of. Today’s post, then, is sort of a tasting menu from the cutting edge of gluten-free science.

First up, an amuse bouche of blood tests for compliance with the gluten-free diet. For the main course, the role of goblet cells as protein escorts in our intestines. And to round off the evening, some fascinating news on sourdough breads. I’m no sommelier, so you’ll have to do the wine pairings on your own.

It’s generally considered good practice to have periodic blood tests done to ensure that your compliance with the gluten-free diet is as thorough as you think it is, and that your body isn’t still producing antibodies to gluten (which it would do if it were still being exposed to gluten). This isn’t the time to go into the details of testing, but most tests look for tissue-transglutaminase, or tTG. The existing tests aren’t as sensitive as many healthcare professionals would like when it comes to checking compliance (as opposed to checking for celiac disease in a person on a regular diet). So, a team from Harvard did a study and found that new type of tTG test, measuring open conformation tTG levels (as opposed to closed) may be better-able to identify people who are not as gluten-free as their health demands. Check out or the study itself for more details.

Moving on to Washington University in St Louis, other researchers have used some cutting edge technology to learn more about what happens in our intestines. It turns out that we have special cells, called dendritic cells, that accept proteins (remember, gluten is a protein) in the intestine; these cells’ acceptance is what allows our T-cells to build a tolerance to these proteins.

By using new imaging techniques to look at the intestines of mice in real-time, scientists discovered the matchmaker between dendritic cells and antigens: goblet cells. These regally named cells also secrete mucus (yum) that keeps the undesirable elements of our diet moving along through our bodies — but it turns out that’s only one of their jobs. Because the cells also do the work of carrying proteins to dendritic cells, they could potentially be the focus of new therapies for those of us who need to avoid gluten. The research is still very preliminary, so your goblet cells are safe from drug therapy for a while still, but it’s interesting news and we’ll be keeping you posted on progress from the medieval lair that is our collective small intestine.

And now, the sweet story you’ve been waiting for: sourdough! It’s delicious, isn’t it? I seem to remember that it was delicious, at least. It’s been a while. Now, those intrepid Italians have released some data indicating that the fermentation taking place in sourdough breads may be a key way to speed intestinal healing for newly diagnosed celiacs. The research used an admittedly small sample size of eight patients, took biopsies, and “fed” those biopsies gluten-free sourdough made from rice, corn, and amaranth. They then studied the biopsies’ release of nitric oxide and creation of pro-inflammatory interferon-gamma (IFN-y) — things that tend to inhibit recovery.

Turns out that the sourdoughs fermented with lactic acid bacteria did a significant job of reducing the production of inflammatory agents. More study is needed — and this is by no means an invitation to eat non-gluten-free sourdough bread — but hopefully one day soon diagnosis of celiac disease will be accompanied by a list of special foods that don’t just avoid harm, but actively heal. I’m sure our goblet cells will appreciate it — and our taste buds, too.

Have you found any science tidbits lately that I’ve missed? Share them in the comments!

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