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Gluten-free Wheat, E. coli, Sensory Lab

Posted by | February 24, 2010

New Hope: Wheat Research for Celiac-disease Sufferers Enters Phase II

In partnership with WSU, Arcadia Biosciences, Inc., an agricultural technology company focused on developing technologies and products that benefit the environment and human health, has received a two-year, $855,500 Small Business Technology Transfer grant to help fund Phase II development of wheat varieties with reduced celiac disease-causing proteins.

Arcadia and WSU received a Phase I grant in 2005 to identify wheat plants with low levels of proteins that are most toxic to individuals with celiac disease. Significant progress in the Phase I program drove the Phase II application and grant funding. Phase II activities will take a broader approach and seek to remove a far greater number of toxic proteins while maintaining levels of proteins that are critical for bread-making qualities. The company also believes that removal of targeted toxic proteins could cause an increase in beneficial proteins and potentially lead to more nutritious bread.

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that, in sensitive individuals, results from a toxic reaction to certain proteins found in specific grains, including wheat. This reaction in celiac sufferers causes damage to the small intestine and inhibits proper food absorption. It is estimated that approximately one percent of Americans have the disease. The incidence is higher in some northern European countries. A study by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic released last July found that celiac disease is four times more common today than it was 50 years ago. The study attributed this increase to the improvement in diagnostic tools as well as unknown environmental factors.

“Celiac disease sufferers have to make significant dietary adjustments in order to avoid potentially severe impacts. And while the range of food products continues to expand in response to the rising numbers of diagnosed celiac-sufferers, certain grains remain off-limits. Development of wheat varieties with minimal amounts of celiac-triggering proteins can dramatically expand food choices and the quality of life for celiac-sufferers,” said Eric Rey, president and CEO of Arcadia. “The progress under our Phase I grant has made us increasingly optimistic about our ability to deliver wheat varieties that people with celiac disease can enjoy. If the approach we are exploring in the Phase II grant is successful, our new wheat varieties may also appeal to a much broader market.”

Although a commercialization time line for the release of new wheat varieties has not been announced, the research partners expect to complete Phase II research in mid-2011.

New hope for celiac-disease suffers enters Phase II research.

For more information about Arcadia Biosciences, please visit For more information about wheat research at WSU, please visit

WSU Receives Federal Grant to Target Genetics of E. coli in Cattle

The E. coli bacterium infects an estimated 70,000 Americans a year, but researchers have yet to get a sure grip on preventing its spread. Health experts have worked on reducing the infection rate through a suite of improvements in meat handling and food preparation. But when only ten E. coli cells can make a person sick, vigilance can only go so far.

Tom Besser, professor of veterinary microbiology at WSU, hopes to stop the bacteria by focusing specifically on beef and dairy cattle and the different types of E. coli they harbor. Besser this month received $1 million from the federal Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to see if previous research into stopping the bacteria at its source–cattle–may be more effective once different strains of the disease are considered.

“Cattle don’t get sick from this,” he said. “It doesn’t bother them. But that still doesn’t mean we can’t go into cattle and maybe do something to reduce their infection rate with 0157. And we think if we do, then depending on how important cattle are as a source for humans, the human rate should go down too.”

So far, he has seen promising work in reducing the rate with which cattle get infected. Vaccines, beneficial bacteria or “probiotics,” and certain feeds have had some good results in reducing the numbers of infected cattle. Researchers have also been struck by how much the bacteria seem to die off in the winter but march back with great force in the summer months.

Now Besser thinks researchers might see even more striking results if they take different E. coli strains into account.

Two strains tend to be particularly infectious, being found in 95 percent of the human illnesses. These are called clinical genotypes. Another group of three strains, the “bovine-biased” genotypes, is found in only five percent of human illnesses.

But as researchers have tested the effectiveness of different vaccines, feeds and treatments, they didn’t determine which of the strains were involved, since the strain types had not been discovered when most of the work had been done.

“We’ve got 15 or 20 years of research on 0157:H7 in cattle and we don’t have a clue in any of those research projects whether we were measuring bovine-biased genotypes or clinical genotypes,” said Besser. “And those interventions that we studied–the vaccines and the probiotics and the seasonal variation and everything else–it would be really helpful to know whether the bovine-biased genotypes behaved differently than the clinical genotypes for those things.”

A vaccine, for example, could cut incidence of 0157 in half. “That could be really good if the half that it’s cutting it by is mostly clinical genotypes,” said Besser. But if the half being reduced is mostly bovine-biased genotypes, it is only affecting the cause of a small percentage of illnesses. “Then you’re probably not affecting the human risk at all,” he said.

“We’ve spent a lot of money over the years trying to investigate feeds and management systems and manure handling systems,” he said. “Now that we know about these genotype differences, I want to go back and say, ‘Well, maybe some of those interventions that looked effective really aren’t very effective and we should write them off. Or maybe some of them that didn’t look very effective actually were much more effective than we thought.’ And I don’t think this is a far-fetched possibility. I think it’s quite possible.”

The three-year USDA grant will cover work in finding genetic markers that clearly define differences in the five strains. Researchers will then use the markers to take a new look at the effectiveness of different treatments and strategies. The grant will also involve an outreach program aimed at improving the accuracy of 0157 information going to industry, health professionals, the media and policy makers.

by Eric Sorenson

Tom Besser

For more information on Tom Besser and the WSU School of Global Animal Health, please visit:

Check out “Discovery,” a blog by science writers at WSU:

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Lab Lets Industry, Researchers Test Products

By doing pre-market evaluation of new food products, a lab at WSU offers researchers and businesses a way of testing their products before they hit the market. The Sensory Evaluation Lab looks at how certain foods and drinks taste, smell and look.

“We run a lot of sensory panels and what we gain from those panels is information about acceptability or just general profiling of different food products,” said sensory scientists Carolyn Ross in a new video. “If we develop a new food process, for example, we want to know, What does that do to the food?”

Watch the video produced by Matt Haugen:

One of the studies done in the WSU Sensory Lab was in collaboration with apple breeders at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. Consumer-derived sensory data provided by the lab helped the breeders decide which apple should be commercialized.

Read about the new apple being commercialized by WSU: Read about how WSU helped Stemilt evaluate Pinata, a popular new apple:

Ross and her colleagues have also worked extensively with the wine industry, evaluating the sensory properties of different processes, such as fining.

Learn more about the sensory evaluation of wine:

Sensory scientist Carolyn Ross

Learn more about Ross and the Sensory Lab by visiting