A local company’s research that may improve the lives of millions of people around the world is being supported by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders. The research involves finding a natural reduction of gluten within cereal grain crops.
Arcadia Biosciences Inc., one of the players in the burgeoning local agricultural biotechnology scene, is the grant recipient. The 10-year-old company is headquartered in Davis, at 202 Cousteau Place.
The local firm licenses technologies that come out of places like UC Davis, where another group already has done basic research. Eric Rey, CEO of Arcadia Biosciences, explained the model:
“We license these outside technologies, make investments in proving the technology works — like efficacy in plants in the field — then we turn around and license it to seed companies.”
Charles “Max” Moehs, a researcher based in Arcadia’s lab in Seattle, conceptualized the basic research for an approach to reducing gluten in cereal grains.
Absent the grant, Moehs would not have been able to pursue the research because Arcadia Biosciences is not in the business of funding basic research itself.
The research focuses on gluten, a mixture of proteins in cereal grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It causes a serious reaction, an autoimmune response, in people with celiac disease, which affects one in 133 Americans.
Another 7 percent of the population is affected by non-celiac gluten sensitivity, according research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. This larger group experiences some physical side-effects after ingesting gluten.
“The aim is to reduce the accumulation in the seed of those proteins that are most toxic to people with gluten sensitivity while leaving the proteins important for the bread-making functionality of wheat,” Moehs said.
The grant, which is the third he’s received from the agency, covers three years of work; after that, Moehs expects to have a better idea of the feasibility of his concept and how long development may take.
“In the old days, I’d tell you it would take 10 years,” he added. “I certainly hope that with the new molecular tools available to us that we can trim that down quite a bit, at least in half. In all, hopefully eight years.”
Commercialization would be the next step after development is complete. The possible commodity — which would not be a genetically modified organism — would capitalize on the gluten-free market, expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2017, according to Packaged Facts.
“It’s unknown right now whether we’re going to be able to make a bread wheat that eliminates gluten for those with celiac disease,” Rey said. “But the other target, of reducing the gluten, is something we’re confident about.
He remains high on the benefit of the work being done by Moehs and his support team, which includes about 10 researchers between the Seattle and Davis labs: “A potentially commercially successful product that makes money and dramatically improves people’s lives? That’s as good as it gets. We’re very excited about it.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett