Looking at things differently in drug development

Written by Abigail Sawyer

Gluten molecules are the target of a new treatment for celiac disease.

Gluten molecules are the target of a new treatment for celiac disease.

A team of researchers from Technische Universitat Wien (TU Wien; Vienna, Austria), in collaboration with an industry partner, has developed a new treatment for celiac disease that could alleviate or eliminate its symptoms. It is hoped that the new medication could be available as soon as 2021.

Celiac disease is caused by hypersensitivity to gluten and affects 1–2% of the population. Current drugs in clinical trials are targeted to the immune system, so will likely result in unpleasant side effects and therefore these treatments will not be available in the near future. In order to produce a marketable drug in the not-so-distant future, the researchers at TU Wien decided to take an entirely different approach.

They have developed a product that instead of targeting the immune system can target gluten molecules to render them harmless. It is hoped that this treatment will have a much easier path to approval.

“Our bodies produce antibodies that fit intruding antigens precisely, like a key to a lock. This immune response makes these antigens harmless,” explained Oliver Spadiut (TU Wien). “If a new antibody fragment is found and produced that docks and blocks the invading gluten molecule without triggering the immune system, the symptoms of celiac disease can be suppressed.”

The team aimed to produce a complex of two antibodies to envelop the gluten molecule. However, the correct formation of proteins can often be difficult to achieve. Therefore, the team developed a process to accurately produce the desired gluten-targeting protein that can be reproduced and scaled up for industrial purposes.

“It will be a preparation that celiac patients can take together with gluten-containing foods to alleviate celiac symptoms,” concludes Spadiut. “It remains to be seen whether the symptoms will disappear completely or will only be alleviated. The precise effects will probably vary from person to person. In any case, we firmly expect the product to be available in ordinary pharmacies as early as 2021.”