A new study has revealed a connection between gluten and T-cells of the immune system, shining light on what causes celiac disease, a condition that affects around 1 in 133 people.

Spelling: UK, Ireland and Australasia: Coeliac disease. USA: Celiac disease

Led by researchers from Monash Unversiy and the University of Leiden, the study was published today in Immunity.

A chronic inflammatory disorder that has been more commonly diagnosed in recent years, celiac disease attacks the digestive process of the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system provokes T-cells to battle the offending proteins, harming the small intestine and blocking the absorption of crucial nutrients into the body. Presently, there are no treatments available for this condition, apart from a gluten free diet.

Many people that suffer from celiac disease do not know they have it. Symptoms can range from severe to mild and include: abdominal pain, gas, bloating, easy bruising, nausea, vomiting, and malnutrition. People sometimes choose to follow a gluten-free diet without being diagnosed.

During this study, the team used the Australian Synchrotron to watch and decipher how T-cells of the immune system connect with gluten, a protein present in rye, barley, and wheat, that causes celiac disease. This new revelation will increase attempts to make a treatment allowing patients to resume a normal diet.

Around half the population has the immune response genes HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8, making them more susceptible to celiac disease. About one in 150 people who have HLA-DQ8 develop celiac disease, while one in 20 who carry HLA-DQ2 will develop it. People with other types of the HLA-DQ genes are protected.

This has encouraged researchers to study how the immune system recognizes gluten.

Dr. Reid, a senior research fellow at Monash University, said:

“This is the first time that the intricacies of the interaction between gluten and two proteins that initiate immune responses have been visualised at a sub-molecular level.”

This discovery of a main happening of celiac disease, can help the biotechnology company, ImmusanT, to develop a blood test and a medicinal vaccine, Nexvax2, for patients with the gene HLA-DQ2 that have celiac disease. It aims to restore immune tolerance to gluten and permits patients to have gluten in their diet.

In the future, researchers will examine whether T-cell activation by gluten in patients with HLA-DQ2, has the same objectives as seen in this study that centered on HLA-DQ8 associated celiac disease.

Chief Scientific Officer at ImmusanT, Dr. Bob Anderson, said this research gives a critical opportunity:

“Because we now know the gluten peptides responsible for celiac disease, we can interrogate the molecular events leading to a self-destructive immune response.”

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald