If Gluten is the Villain, Could a Common Virus Be the Cause?

There was a study recently about the potential trigger for celiac disease, a condition wherein a patient becomes unable to tolerate foods that contain gluten and must make the switch to a gluten-free diet. According to the study, a common virus could be the cause of celiac disease.

Gluten can do a lot of damage to the digestive systems of people suffering from celiac disease. It causes their immune system to incorrectly judge gluten as a harmful substance to be eradicated. These auto-immune disorders, in which the immune system is tricked into attacking a healthy body, are surprisingly common.

It’s been known for a while now that some could be genetically predisposed to celiac disease. Around 30% of all Americans have the genes needed to become susceptible to celiac disease. Even so, there are only around 1% of Americans who actually suffer from it.

This has left researchers wondering why not everyone who carries the risk genes ends up getting celiac.

It is likely that the answer to the conundrum could be quite complicated, but scientists have been able to posit a theory. Dr Terence Dermody, the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the trigger to celiac could be a viral infection. Dr Dermody is one of the authors of the latest study looking into this theory, published in Science.

Dr Dermody worked with a team of collaborators headed up by Bana Jabri of the University of Chicago. They decided to test the theory using experimental mice. The virus in question was reovirus. This is a common virus most Americans deal with during childhood, but it isn’t considered to be a dangerous disease. The mice had been genetically engineered to be more susceptible to celiac disease. The mice were exposed to reovirus while being fed a diet rich in gluten.

It appears that the team were correct in their hunch. The mice would develop an immunological response to gluten that mirrored celiac disease in humans. The symptoms of celiac disease include gastrointestinal distress such as diarrhoea. According to doTERRA health scientist Dr. Damian Rodriguez, “This is an interesting finding which may provide a pathway to further research into the origins of a condition that we still know very little about.”

Dermody says that it all comes down to timing. The study would suggest that problems occur when the virus is introduced at the same time as gluten, causing the immune system to mistake the gluten as a harmful substance similar to the disease. Even after the disease is gone, the immune system attempts to remove gluten like it would any other “virus”.

Even though it appeared the connection existed in mice, there is still the question of whether or not it’s true for humans as well. Could reovirus and gluten intolerance be connected?

The answer to this question was suggested with the study’s second phase. The team analysed the antibody levels various people had against various diseases. They discovered that people suffering from celiac disease had between two and five times as many reovirus-specific antibodies as those without.

Dermody says that this could be a clue to suggest people with celiac disease could have been exposed to reovirus before celiac disease developed. He was keen, however, to say that this is just a clue.

It will still take more time to figure out whether or not the casual link between celiac disease and reovirus infection exists. Dermody dreams of putting together a study involving thousands of children and lasting for several years. For now though, he and his team will be able to continue their research with some help from funds from the National Institutes of Health.

There is an upside to understanding the potential connection between the two diseases according to Dr Bana Jabri of the University of Chicago; one of the co-authors of the study. She explained that, should there really be a connection between reovirus and celiac disease, then children with a genetic predisposition towards celiac disease could be vaccinated for reovirus. It could be a good idea to consider vaccinating people with a risk of developing celiac disease against viruses such as reovirus.

This isn’t the first time that someone has suggested a connection between auto-immune disorders like celiac disease and viral infections. Even so, Julie Pfeiffer explains that this would be the first time that a traceable experimental model has been used to answer the question. Pfeiffer is an Associate Professor of Microbiology at the University of Texas Southwestern. She followed the research, but was not directly involved with the study. She said that given the interest in the study and the apparent results, there is enough to warrant further studies on humans.

There has been a greater awareness in recent years. There has also been an increase in the amount of people switching to gluten-free diets and gluten free supplements for health reasons and because they are concerned about gluten sensitivity. The evidence of an increase in gluten free diets is seen by the increase in gluten-free food sales, along with two college campuses opening up their own gluten-free dining halls.