Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

Grains they can stomach October 12, 2012 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 10/12/12

MSU scientist David Sands' innovations to help celiacs took on new meaning with a family health crisis
David Sands had researched ancient foods and developed gluten-free crops for 20 years when he discovered that he was a member of the community he was trying to help.

Sands is a Montana State University professor and crop pathologist with a curious and creative mind who discovered a link between bacteria and precipitation and developed a microbe that fights a weed devastating to African crops.

For more than two decades, Sands also has had a particular interest in developing contemporary, commercially viable crops developed from prehistoric grains. The work interested him, he said, because it has important applications for helping people who suffer from a variety of food challenges--such as diabetes, depression and obesity--as well as athletes, vegetarians and those with gluten intolerance.

Gluten is a highly compact protein found in kernels of grain--mainly wheat, barley and rye. At its most serious, gluten intolerance causes celiac disease, which damages the small intestine and can lead to a cascade of problems in other systems.

His orientation and a talent for turning quirky observations into marketable crops led Sands and his research team to develop four new gluten-free crops now known as Montina, PrOatina, Timtana and camelina. Applauded by people who suffer in a variety of ways when they eat gluten, Sands collaborated with Montanans who saw promise in growing and marketing the new crops. He published his findings in scientific journals. He presented his work to international, national and state organizations.

"David has been great. He has addressed our group any number of times," said R. Jean Powell of Bozeman, executive director and founder of the Montana Celiac Society.

There's a lot of cooperation between the scientists who study celiac disease and plenty of camaraderie with the people who have it, Sands noted. Yet it took years before the scientist realized he belonged to both groups.

"I thought it was normal to feel this way," Sands said as he pointed toward his mid-section. "You don't understand how much is psychological, sympathy or what."

Sands finally discovered the reason behind his bloating and gut-wrenching pain after he and his wife, Kippy, went to the doctor to see if they were responsible for their granddaughter being diagnosed with celiac disease at 17 months and their son being diagnosed at age 29.

DNA tests showed that David Sands had both genes for celiac disease, and Kippy--although she had no symptoms--had one. It didn't mean they had the disease, but it was "pretty much the smoking gun for predisposition to having it," Sands said.

Ever the scientist, Sands experimented by removing bread, teriyaki sauce, ketchup and other products containing gluten from his diet. Because he started feeling better, lost his scaly elbows (skin problems are sometimes a symptom of celiac disease), and performed better as a member of a "super senior" tennis team that won fourth place at nationals, Sands took it as confirmation that he had the disease.

"I wasn't too surprised because I stopped eating wheat," he said. "That's the test--if you stop and get better."

Real celiac disease involves immune reactions

After Sands was diagnosed with celiac disease, a grandson, daughter and his brother's granddaughter were all diagnosed with the disease. The fact that their ages ranged from newborn to 39 indicates that celiac disease is an inherited disease that can make itself known at any time.

"I don't know when this hit me," said Sands, now 71. "It hits some people in their 60s and some people at birth and quite often in their 20s, 30s and 40s."

Alice Pilgeram, an MSU research professor who works with Sands in plant sciences and plant pathology, said almost one percent of the United States population has genuine celiac disease and another five to seven percent have varying degrees of gluten intolerance. An unknown percentage try gluten-free diets to see if they will benefit in some way even though they haven't been diagnosed, she said.

A wide range of conditions and symptoms have been linked to celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance, according to Linda Hogg, a registered dietician and licensed nutritionist in MSU's Student Health Service, and Holly Hunts, an associate professor in MSU's Department of Health and Human Development, who has celiac disease.

glutenman diagram
A wide range of conditions and symptoms have been linked to celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance.

"Celiac disease is a digestive, autoimmune disease," Hunts said. "When a person has one autoimmune disease, they are often diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases. Common autoimmune diseases present with celiac include Sjogren's Syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid diseases."

Osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer have also been linked to celiac disease and gluten intolerance, Hunts said.

Pilgeram said people who have been diagnosed with genuine celiac disease have an immune reaction when they eat even a smidgen of gluten. The hair-like villi in their small intestines slough off their outer layer of cells and become red and raw. The villi may then lie down, making the lining of the small intestine look more like a linoleum floor than a shag carpet. As a result, the villi can't absorb nutrients from food until they heal. When food isn't digested properly, it can produce abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, bloating and constipation. When the body isn't getting proper nutrition, it can lead to problems in other systems.

"Your immune system recognizes gluten as a foreign molecule," Pilgeram said. "It's doing everything it can to protect you from it, but it's protection you really wish you didn't have."

In Pilgeram's case, she had acid reflux that kept her awake for several hours every night. The long-time sufferer didn't connect her sleeplessness to gluten intolerance, however, until she read about a new gluten-free diet that linked the two. Curious to see if it was true for her, she stopped eating bread and other products containing gluten. Within three days, her acid reflux was gone. She finally got a full night's sleep.

"For the last three months, I have slept all night long. It's so awesome," Pilgeram said.

In the case of the executive director of the Montana Celiac Society, Powell, 76, said she was misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 47. At age 55, she was diagnosed with gluten ataxia, a rare disorder that causes her to walk with a cane because of brain damage that causes poor balance. Powell said she stopped eating gluten and immediately saw an improvement, although the diagnosis came too late to resolve all her issues.

Her diagnosis made her wonder if others in the family might be having trouble with gluten, too, Powell said. Her grandson, for one, was the shortest person in his third grade class. Her mother was in excruciating pain in a Missouri nursing home.

Both went on gluten-free diets, and it made an obvious difference, Powell said. Her mother's pain went away. Her grandson, Rio Gonzalez, started growing at a normal rate and is now 6 feet 5 inches tall. He is the MSU liaison for the Montana Celiac Society.

"It's miserable when it's not diagnosed," Powell said.

Old cultures lead to new crops

As an increasing number of people are being diagnosed with celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerances­--partly because of greater awareness and better diagnostic tools, according to Hunts--Sands continues to look to prehistoric cultures for inspiration and relief.

"I'm always looking for gluten-free crops," Sands said. "I'm also looking for ancient cultures because they survived for thousands of years. What they were eating must have been well-selected."

Montina, for one, was developed from Indian ricegrass. Sands had discovered that Native Americans collected and ate Indian ricegrass as a condiment or when game was in short supply. Archaeologists exploring collapsed caves found Indian ricegrass seeds in baking kilns.

Camelina seeds were discovered in a pouch carried by a prehistoric man found frozen in Austria, Sands said. Camelina was also common in ancient Rome, but the seeds are extremely small, so the crop "somehow got lost in the shuffle."

Modern-day observations resulted in gluten-free crops, too.

Sands said he noticed that horses love to eat Timothy grass, and every time he saw a farmer or rancher chewing on a plant, it seemed to be Timothy grass. As a result, he and his research team developed Timothy grass into Timtana.

Sands and his collaborators realized that oats are high in protein, but they're often overlooked because people think of them as horse food. The outcome was MSU's latest gluten-free crop--PrOatina.

Sands also reads medical journals and studies the human genome to see what diseases, such as celiac disease, he can address by developing new alternative crops.

"We are constantly looking at the medical application of food," he said.

Busting through thickets

Researchers have to overcome all kinds of obstacles before brainstorms become reality, Sands said. Referring to those obstacles as thickets, he said an example of such challenges might include the patenting process or making edible and tasty foods from new grains.

In the case of Montina, one thicket was turning Indian ricegrass into a form that people would eat. Pilgeram described the process in the March 2011 issue of MSU's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology newsletter.

Sands--after discovering that Indian ricegrass was gluten-free--ground the seeds into coarse flour and challenged everyone in the lab to bake with it, Pilgeram wrote.

"The results were dismal. Nothing that we made was edible," Pilgeram said.

Still believing that Indian ricegrass had potential, Sands and his team contacted MSU food scientist Bettie Stanislao and the celiac community to help develop recipes they could stomach. Stanislao described the experience in a 2004 news article.

"I'd often stay up all night baking," Stanislao said. "You know how you get into something and can't stop. In the morning, I brought in some pies. People at first said they wanted just a tiny piece. But the pies looked like pies and tasted like pies and pretty soon people were asking to have another piece."

The result of her late nights was a number of gluten-free products that were made from Montina and sold commercially starting in 2003. Montina was trademarked about 10 years ago, Sands said.

The only drawback now is that Indian ricegrass is a reclamation seed and currently unavailable for Montina, Sands said. The federal government plants Indian ricegrass in areas that have been burned in wild fires. After a bad fire season, farmers can earn more money by selling their Indian ricegrass seed to the federal government than selling it for flour.

Nick Zelver, associate director of MSU's Technology Transfer Office, said the use of Timothy grass seeds to make gluten-free food products has been patented. The patent is 100 percent owned by MSU and licensed to Innovative Food Products.

Pilgeram said PrOatina is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Montana Gluten Free Processors of Belgrade.

Broader benefits

Gluten-free products make meals more enjoyable for Sands and his family, but he said he has a bigger goal for his research. Whether he's investigating ancient plants to come up with the next gluten-free crop or developing a fungus to benefit farming in Africa, he wants his research to go beyond the laboratory and into the market place. He wants his research to have applications that will benefit people, whether they are family or not.

"I want things to work. I want them to get all the way out," Sands said. "To get something all the way out and on the shelf is, to me, a very appropriate thing to do." ■