Novel ways to tackle gluten

Professor David Sanders knows a thing or two about gluten. Later in the year Penguin will publish his new book – Gluten Attack – the cover of which is illustrated with a carving knife plunged into a loaf of bread. Around the same time, BBC2 will broadcast Food Detective, a programme based on a piece of research he has done with them that examines what happens to a group of healthy volunteers – in Sheffield of course – who eat gluten.

Gluten

“We ran a randomized control trial of healthy volunteers to see if they developed symptoms when they ate gluten or not,” says Professor Sanders, a consultant gastroenterologist at the Sheffield Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and a man on mission to explode some of the myths about gluten, and to develop ways of dealing with what is fast becoming a health issue for a significant number of people around the world today.

"We are often unaware of when we are eating gluten," says Professor Sanders "it is now in so many products, from Mars Bars to tablets. It may be that, not only are we eating a larger quantity of gluten in our bread, but that we are eating it through many, many other routes. So it could be that we are consuming industrial quantities of gluten unbeknown to us, and that might just be that one step too far for mankind’s immune system."

We are often unaware of when we are eating gluten, it is now in so many products, from Mars Bars to tablets. It may be that, not only are we eating a larger quantity of gluten in our bread, but that we are eating it through many, many other routes.

Professor David Sanders

Professor Sanders, who is a founder member of the Sheffield Institute of Gluten-Related Disorders (SIGReD) along with consultant neurologist Professor Marios Hadjivassiliou, suggests that one in every hundred people suffers from coeliac disease – an autoimmune disease caused when the body’s immune system reacts to gluten found in wheat, rye and barley. Back in 1950, it was thought that just one in 8,000 people, mostly young children, suffered from the disease.

“We now know differently,” says Professor Sanders. “Our research has established that 1% of the population have coeliac disease, of which 2 out of 4 cases are currently undiagnosed within the UK. Furthermore, work from our department has shown that 13% of the population report symptoms (gluten sensitivity) when they eat gluten and that 2.9% are on a gluten-free diet of their own choosing. These were individuals who said they had already been tested for coeliac disease or had coeliac disease excluded by their doctors.”

And this leads him to the most important message of the book and his research: “Rule number one of a Gluten Attack is if you have symptoms when you eat gluten please go and see a doctor. Do not place yourself on a gluten-free diet no matter how fed up you may be. Try to clarify the diagnosis medically once and for all.”

As a clinician, Professor Sanders says it is vital for him to collaborate with researchers at the university. “It’s a way of sharpening our thinking,” he says. The Institute now helps set the standards for clinical guidance for treating coeliac disease. But it also brings together global expertise so that we can share learning, encourage collaboration and innovation and become a research powerhouse with the aim of improving the diagnosis and care for hundreds of people who may be living with this disease undiagnosed.