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Safeguarding Celiac Disease Patients in Europe

EFSA’s scientific experts have investigated the causes of celiac disease and developed a tool for screening proteins in food and food ingredients that might cause symptoms in patients. Such tools could potentially be used in a variety of food safety areas.

Celiac disease is caused by an immune reaction triggered by gluten , proteins found in foods containing wheat, barley or rye. Symptoms vary widely and include stomach-ache, diarrhoea, malnutrition, iron-deficiency (anaemia), and/or osteoporosis. The only therapy is a life-long gluten-free diet.

Studies indicate that some 0.7% of the EU population suffers from celiac disease but many cases go unreported.

Leading international expertise

Prof Frits Koning, who has investigated how celiac disease develops and behaves in his research, is a member of the EFSA working group that helps to assess the allergenicity of genetically modified (GM) plants. 

Prof Koning explained: “Celiac disease patients all share one or two molecules called HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8. These are receptors that efficiently bind fragments of gluten proteins. This binding allows recognition of the gluten fragment by the immune system, triggering celiac disease.”

A tool for peptide binding prediction

“In our working group, we developed a mathematical model and an application to predict how gluten from food binds to these receptors – known as ‘peptide binding’. The tool allows us to evaluate proteins from plants, animals or microorganisms used in our food before they are allowed in our diet.”

EFSA’s tool is called “preDQ”. It can be used on any protein intended for the diet.

Prof Koning stated: “We use the tool to screen the primary amino acid sequence of the protein to predict whether or not binding of fragments of the protein will take place. If it predicts binding, the protein may pose a risk for celiac disease patients.”

Potential use in other food safety areas

EFSA’s experts are now using preDQ in its assessments of GM plants, but it could potentially be used for screening any proteins, for example, in novel foods, food/feed enzymes, contaminants, and GM food or feed. The tool could also be used outside EFSA by producers to screen in advance crop plants made by plant breeding techniques.

Prof Koning stated: “I am pleased that over a decade later, my research and the work of the scientific community is helping to protect European celiac disease patients from being exposed to harmful food products.”

Source : efsa