No one likes gluten-free bread. It often feels stale or is too cracker-like. People will make do with gluten-free baked goods if they must, but the springiness of wheat is sorely absent.
“It’s never as crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside as regular bread,” says Anat Binur, CEO and founder of a startup called Ukko. The company is working on non-allergenic wheat for those with wheat allergies, gluten intolerances, or celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes gluten to wreak havoc on the small intestine. It wants to create a bevy of foods that anyone can eat—and enjoy—regardless of allergies.
Ukko is also working on a line of therapeutics that will help people get over food sensitivities, including the 6.1 million Americans who are allergic to peanuts. The startup recently raised $40 million. Bayer’s venture capital arm led the round.
While celiac disease affects only 1% of the U.S. population, a growing number of people are affected by non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that roughly 1 in 13 kids have some kind of food allergy.
Ukko is the Finnish god of thunder. He is believed to control rainfall and good harvest. The name gives the company the crunchy flair of The Moosewood Cookbook, but the work it’s doing is very much of the future. Ukko, the company, uses artificial intelligence to figure out which proteins in gluten are triggering the immune system. Then it uses CRISPR Cas-9, a genetic editing technique, to remove the problem.
“We will end up having a gluten that is functional and wonderful, but doesn’t trigger the immune system,” says Binur.
The idea of editing out problematic proteins in foods is still new. Researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands first started publishing on the concept in 2019. The scientists removed an entire family of proteins in order to prevent allergic reaction. They also laid out methods for testing whether the edited wheat truly is safe for people with celiac disease. Binur says Ukko’s approach is different in that it’s excising out a much smaller target.
The company also wants to extend this concept into the world of therapeutics. The main method for treating a peanut allergy, aside from avoidance, is to introduce tiny amounts of peanut into the diet and grow exposure over time. It essentially desensitizes the body to peanuts. Last year the Food and Drug Administration approved the first peanut allergy powder. Ukko wants to develop a similar therapeutic, but with the immune system offending protein edited out. The result would be a peanut allergy pill that has much lower risk of causing an allergic reaction.