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Whitworth receives $15,000 grant for research on celiac disease

February 23, 2012
Grant enables Whitworth and North Central High School students to conduct collaborative research

Whitworth has received a $15,000 grant from Empire Health Foundation to study celiac disease, which affects one in every 133 Americans, as part of a collaboration with students on the biomedical track at North Central High School.

The collaboration began last September when three Whitworth professors met with a science teacher and assistant principal at North Central High, when they began to create definitive plans to work together on celiac disease research. The group consisted of Associate Professor of Chemistry Deanna Ojennus, Professor of Biology Finn Pond and Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Kent Jones, North Central High science teacher Randall James, and North Central High assistant principal Steve Fisk.

"Since gluten intolerance is much more widespread than originally thought, there is significant interest in studying this disease and potential treatments," Ojennus says. "Also, because gluten intolerance is so common, many of our researchers have a personal interest in this study because they have friends or family members who have been diagnosed with CD."

The group called its collaboration, "Transforming Science Education: a biomedical research partnership between North Central High School and Whitworth University." Along with involvement from the biology, chemistry, and computer and mathematics departments, the project will help support Whitworth's new bioinformatics major.

The group was able to obtain the grant for celiac research through the help of Lynn Noland, Whitworth's director of sponsored programs and IRB administrator of academic affairs.

The Research Process

Several North Central High students in James' class will begin working on the project this spring. James will later select four students to continue the research by completing an intensive internship on Whitworth's campus for five weeks this summer. There they will be mentored by Jones and Ojennus, as well as four of Whitworth's summer research fellows who have already begun their research.

Ojennus says that students' assistance on research projects helps professors accomplish more than they normally would while teaching full-time, and that students also benefit greatly from the work.

"Participating in faculty-directed research projects provides invaluable hands-on experience which will assist students in almost any endeavor after graduation, whether they go on to graduate studies or look for a job," she says. "Since we will also be mentoring high school students this summer, it is our goal to encourage as many students as possible to consider education and/or careers in the sciences by seeing what it is like working in a research environment."

Celiac disease is a digestive condition triggered by gluten intolerance. Nearly one-third of Americans carry one of the two versions of genes for celiac disease, and one out of 133 has the disease. However, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, 97 percent of people with the disease go undiagnosed.

As symptoms can vary widely, celiac disease is often difficult to diagnose, but the only existing treatment is to adhere strictly to a gluten-free diet. However, this is often difficult because gluten is found in a plethora of food, primarily baked goods, pastas and other foods containing wheat, rye and barley. As gluten intolerance is much more widespread than initially thought, there is significant interest in studying this disease and potential treatments.

Whitworth and North Central High researchers are focusing their efforts on two particular projects. First, they will analyze why certain fragments of gluten are toxic while others aren't. Gluten is a large protein molecule that gives bread dough its elasticity. When eaten, the human body breaks the protein down into smaller fragments called peptides and amino acids, which can be absorbed as nutrients. Some of these peptides are known to be toxic. Researchers will examine the structures of several known toxic gluten peptides through computer modeling studies and experimental work.

The second project involves a potential therapeutic treatment for celiac disease. Gluten contains a high amount of the amino acid proline, which humans' digestive enzymes do not break down very efficiently. This is why many gluten peptides arrive in the lower digestive tract intact and can induce a Celiac response in sensitive individuals. Many researchers are exploring a current model of treatment in the use of an enzyme dietary supplement that can help break down gluten peptides in our stomach and prevent celiac responses. These enzymes are called prolyl endopeptidases (PEPs). The Whitworth and North Central High researchers are proposing to specifically examine a peptidase found in lactic acid fermenting bacteria, specifically different species of lactobacilli that are already used to make Swiss cheeses and sourdough breads. The student researchers hope they can take this enzyme and design a more effective therapeutic treatment for celiac disease.

A Breakthrough

At Whitworth, the research on celiac disease has already begun. Last January, a breakthrough came for the Ojennus research group including Whitworth sophomore Kristin Wucherer, one of the student researchers. After several attempts, they successfully placed the gene – for the enzyme that will help gluten proteins to break down – into an E. coli plasmid vector, which can then be used to produce the enzyme for design studies.

For Wucherer, this project is personal: she has gluten intolerance herself.

"The most exciting part of this project is that it directly ties to me," says Wucherer, a chemistry major who plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry and possibly a career in medicine. "The research I am doing, if successful, could be very beneficial for me, and all the other people who have gluten allergies. It may aid other research teams who are trying to identify enzymes to aid in the digestion of not only gluten, but other foods that cause allergic reactions."

Ojennus says she is very thankful for the financial support Empire Health will provide for all the student researchers involved. Empire is excited to provide support for this project, says Sarah Lyman, senior program associate of the foundation's Strategic Grants Program and Responsive Grants Program.

"This project represents a thoughtful, creative collaboration between the university and North Central High School, aimed at increasing high school students' hands-on experience with biomedical research, while contributing to an important body of science," says Lyman. "Improving science education and literacy among high school students is a very important factor in creating a pipeline for healthcare workers in our region."

Formed in 2008, Empire Health Foundation's mission is to transform Eastern Washington into the healthiest region in the state. EHF is the largest private foundation in the area dedicated to health philanthropy and grant-making. EHF invests in ideas and organizations that improve access, health education, wellness, research and public policy to result in a measurably healthier region.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 3,000 students, offers 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.


Deanna Ojennus, associate professor of chemistry, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4860 or

Sarah Lyman, senior program associate of Strategic Grants Program and Responsive Grants Program, Empire Health Foundation, (509) or

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or