Blocks of various cheese types

Cheese? Yes please!

By Kirsten Lee, Class of 2020.

Cheese, glorious cheese. The melting, oozing, creamy goodness, loved the world over. Unfortunately for those who struggle with lactose intolerance, it is more of a love-hate relationship.

From a young age I have struggled with dairy, and a few years ago I had to say enough was enough. It was doing me more harm than good. And it seems I am not alone. Research suggests that globally around 70 percent of adults lack intestinal lactase, the enzyme required for the digestion of lactose, found in milk and dairy products. For those that suffer from this deficiency, the consumption of these foods leads to various uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms.

However new research undertaken by Li and colleagues, found that by coating the small intestine with a synthetic glue-like substance we could potentially treat lactose intolerance.

So, you can only imagine that when I spotted this discovery, I screamed, “Cheese? Yes please!”.

Pizza with a cheesy slice being picked up
A delicious cheesy pizza. Photo via Google (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

What is lactose intolerance?

Let’s have a look at the details first. Lactose is the sugar commonly found in milk. It is a large sugar molecule, which is actually made up of two smaller sugar molecules, glucose and galactose. During the digestion process, these large molecules need to be broken down into the two separate sugars, so they are more easily absorbed. Lactase is the key enzyme which does this and it is found in the lining of the small intestine.

Most mammals stop producing lactase once they are weaned. However, for most people of Western European descent, they often continue to produce lactase throughout their adult lives. Therefore, where milk drinking is the cultural norm, we have adapted to tolerate it quite well.

However, if your body cannot digest lactose properly, it will pass straight into the large intestine, where bacteria will assist in partially breaking it down into acids and gases. However, this fermentation process causes excessive wind, bloating and abdominal pain. From here, any undigested lactose will attract water molecules. This means that instead of moving into the bloodstream, the water will stay in the faecal matter (poo), causing diarrhoea.

So, is there a cure?

Up until now, over-the-counter lactase tablets have been the best form of treatment for those who are lactose intolerant, but they have to be taken immediately prior to consumption (of lactose-containing products) and have varying levels of effectiveness.

But this new research suggests that drinking a synthetic glue may be a better treatment option. Once consumed, the chemicals in the glue bind together when they encounter the targeted enzyme, forming a synthetic lining. The substance is known as a polydopamine, and  it has been found to stick tightly to the intestines. It has actually been likened to the glue mussels use to grip onto wet rocks. Amazingly, the researchers found that they were able to increase lactose digestion 20-fold by incorporating lactase into this synthetic lining.

From the testing conducted, this substance was found to remain intact in the small intestine for about 24 hours before it naturally broke away and was excreted (in poo). Therefore, the glue would need to be consumed each day in order to replenish the synthetic lining.

Yet, the research extends beyond those suffering from a lactose intolerance as the glue can be adapted to target different nutrients. Therefore, forming a potential basis for the treatment of diabetes and obesity as well.

So unfortunately, this doesn’t look like a cure. But it is definitely a significant discovery for a number of underlying health conditions. And for me, this has the potential to be a great treatment option in my future. Until then, I will continue to look longingly at well-structured cheese boards and late-night gooey pizzas.

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