Discovery could lead to celiac disease vaccine

It has been 60 years since scientists found the link between gluten and celiac disease, but only recently have they found the precise cause of the immune reaction that can cause so much pain and discomfort to sufferers.

While one in every 133 Americans has celiac disease, many are asymptomatic. Those that show symptoms often contend with nausea and vomiting, headache, and mouth ulcers and weight loss after eating gluten containing foods made from wheat, rye and barley.

Now, according to a recently published study in the journal Science in Translational Medicine, researchers have found three key substances in gluten that cause the often overwhelming immune response, leading experts to hope that a vaccine is close at hand.

Researchers in the United Kingdom and Australia studied 200 celiac patients in their respective countries by asking them to eat bread, rye muffins or boiled barley, and then tested their blood six days later to measure their immune response to thousands of peptides, or differing gluten fragments. The scientists found that while no fewer than 90 peptides caused immune responses, three were particularly severe.

"These three components account for the majority of the immune response to gluten that is observed in people with celiac disease," Professor Bob Anderson, head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, told the BBC.

This new knowledge may soon bear fruit, but celiac sufferers will need patience.

“It's an important piece of the jigsaw but a lot of further work remains so nobody should be expecting a practical solution in their surgery within the next 10 years," Sarah Sleet of Celiac UK told the BBC.

A new therapy is already being developed and results are expected in the next few months, according to Anderson. In this immunotherapy trial, celiac patients are slowly being introduced to tiny amounts of the three toxic peptides in an effort to become acclimatized.

So far, the best alternative available to celiac sufferers remains a strict gluten-free diet, though this is often a challenging option. After five years on a gluten-free diet, nearly half of those with celiac disease still have some intestinal damage.