Carnivorous plant enzymes could help celiacs digest gluten, says U of C researcher

Calgary scientists have made a breakthrough that could help celiac patients digest gluten with the help of an enzyme from carnivorous pitcher plants.

'The idea here is that you would take it like Beano,' says David Schriemer

University of Calgary researcher David Schriemer envisions a concentrated protein extract from the pitcher plant fluid could allow people with celiac disease to fully digest gluten and bypass the consequences of their autoimmune disease. (Meta Science, Sally Crosswaithe/Flickr)

This story was originally published Aug. 8.

Calgary scientists have made a breakthrough that could help celiac patients digest gluten with the help of an enzyme from bug-eating pitcher plants.

Pitcher plants are like "disposable stomachs" that are filled with an enzyme-rich liquid that helps them digest insect prey, explained lead researcher David Schriemer. 

The professor at the University of Calgary says preliminary research shows the enzymes in these so-called monkey cups are "enormously potent" in breaking down gluten, and could work in a human stomach.

Pitcher plants, commonly called monkey cups, trap and eat insects to produce necessary nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. (incidencematrix/Flickr)

Schriemer said in a few years' time, people with celiac disease could take a pill containing these enzymes, which would allow them to fully break down gluten. 

"The idea here is that you would take it like Beano," he said.

"We've taken it all the way through to animal trials at this point, and it seems to work." 

Retirement operation in B.C. helps out

Each pitcher plant holds just 0.5 millilitres of liquid. 

To collect enough for their study, Schreimer and his colleagues enlisted the help of three retired women in B.C.'s Lower Mainland who "had a fascination" for carnivorous sundews, Venus flytraps and pitcher plants. 

These women dedicated an entire greenhouse of roughly 1,000 individual pitchers, each about the size of a thumb, Schreimer said.

The University of Calgary researchers supplied those women with vials of fruit flies to stimulate the plants, and the women tapped off small amounts of fluids on a regular basis. 

After six months, they had collected six litres — enough for the researchers to complete their studies.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease in which people are unable to fully digest certain proteins from wheat. The partially digested products that remain trigger inflammation and can damage the lining of the small intestine. (Health Canada)

How celiac disease works

Celiac disease is caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, which is a mixture of proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. 

A person who has celiac disease is unable to fully digest those proteins, and the products left behind by this partial digestion can trigger a toxic response, where antibodies attack internal organs such as the small intestine.

This in turn can reduce the person's ability to absorb other nutrients including iron, folate, calcium, vitamin D, protein, fat and other food compounds.

Approximately one in every 100 people in Canada suffers from this disease, according to Health Canada. 

There is no cure for the disease. Treatment is a strict, gluten-free diet for life.

Each of the 1,000 pitcher plants used in this study was roughly the size of a thumb and held 0.5 millilitres of fluid. (Huntington Botanical Gardens)

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener