Could Celiac Disease Be Cause By A Virus?

Microscope image of intestine tissue from someone with coeliac disease

A typically harmless type of virus might sometimes trigger celiac disease, a new study suggests.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder which occurs when the body has an inappropriate immune response, like an allergy, to the protein gluten.

"You can't eat wheat, barley or rye, that is a big one, it's flour", Kovak said.

In the new study, a common strain of a human reovirus triggered an inflammatory immune response to gluten in mice that had been genetically engineered to over-produce antibodies (proteins that are supposed to attack toxins in the blood).

"This is the first study to show that a virus can change the way our diet is seen by the immune system", Dr. Bana Jabri of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center and senior author of the study, told NBC News. Celiac disease, an autoimmune pathology, has no effective remedy at present, the only way to avoid exposure to its painful symptoms is to proscribe the nutrient in question from its diet. "The potential mechanism is that when gluten is introduced right at the time that an asymptomatic reovirus infection is taking hold, that causes the immune system to treat the gluten as foreign, eliciting an immune response against it".

"What its saying is, here's a mechanism for how what otherwise might seem to be harmless virus might confuse the immune system into thinking something's a harmful protein". This same molecule was particularly high in people who had celiac disease, the Science Alert reported.

To unravel the mechanism behind celiac disease, researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine teamed up with colleagues to tease apart the immune minutia.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, as many as 1 in 141 people in the United States have celiac disease, although the majority of these are unaware that they are affected. Their results indicate a majority of the women with celiac disease were not initially diagnosed with anorexia; however, they were found to be twice as likely to be later diagnosed with the eating disorder.

More steps are needed to actually generate damage to the small intestine, and this particular investigation did not look further into those steps. More exactly, a reovirus infection could potentially trigger this affection. Epidemiological evidence hints at a virus triggering coeliac disease, but there hasn't been much in the way of experimental evidence.

As such, the study co-author notes that it is important to recognize how a reovirus infection can leave a "permanent mark" on the immune system, which can increase the risk for developing celiac disease.

R. Bouziat et al., "Reovirus infection triggers inflammatory responses to dietary antigens and development of celiac disease", Science, doi:10.1126/science.aah529811, 2017.

According to Coeliac UK, one in 100 people in the UK has coeliac disease, with the prevalence rising to one in ten for close family members. Once more studies are completed, Jabri says it's worth discussing whether children at risk of developing celiac disease should be vaccinated.

The result of the study is a shift from other studies that focus on celiac disease as a genetic disorder.

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