Celiac disease is caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley.
"What's striking about this study is in the background a virus that produces no overt clinical symptoms [can] profoundly change the way the immune system sees a dietary protein, and it sets the stage for celiac disease", said the study's senior author Dr. Bana Jabri, professor and director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
As awareness of celiac disease has grown, so too has the number of people experimenting with gluten-free diets due to concerns about gluten sensitivities.
Up until now, research has mainly focussed on the idea that celiac is a genetic disease, but this new study suggests that early infection with a virus called the reovirus could also play a role. Infection with the suspected culprit, a reovirus, could cause the immune system to react to gluten as if it was a risky pathogen instead of a harmless food protein, an global team of researchers reports April 7 in Science.
The scientists believe children are commonly infected with the reovirus around the same time that gluten is introduced into their diet, which could trigger the condition in genetically predisposed people.
The virus tricks the immune system into thinking gluten is a harmful and needs to be attacked.
Previous studies have suggested a link between infections with certain viruses, including hepatitis C virus, and rotavirus (a virus in the same family as reovirus) and the development of celiac disease. And they also had higher levels of "type 1 interferons", which suppress the creation of T cells (which regulate the intensity of immune responses). Cells that would normally ward off immune attackers lost this ability, and instead led to an immune response that resembled an infection.
Could a seemingly harmless virus you had as a baby be behind coeliac disease?
That's exactly what researchers are working on: a vaccine for those who have celiac disease.
Celiac disease is also referred to as celiac sprue, gluten-sensitive enteropathy, nontropical sprue and coeliac disease. This high concentration of antibodies was responsible for greater level of IRF1 gene expression. Furthermore, these people with more antibodies were found to have more of the celiac disease inflammation.
The initial viral infection may set the stage for affliction with celiac disease at a later point in the child's life.
However, figures show only 24 per cent of those with the condition are diagnosed, leaving an estimated half a million people in the United Kingdom living with the condition without knowing about it.
Celiac disease long has posed a mystery to medical researchers about how the body becomes allergic to the protein found in wheat, one of world's most abundantly consumed foods used to make bread, cereals, desserts and beer. As a result, the person starts to show symptoms of celiac disease. Once more studies are completed, Jabri says it's worth discussing whether children at risk of developing celiac disease should be vaccinated.
Understanding how the celiac disease develops is important in the development of future treatments which may include a vaccine for celiac disease.