New Study Finds Gluten Allergy May Be Triggered by a Common Virus

It can leave a ‘scar’ that sets off the autoimmune disease

The only known treatment for the disease is avoiding gluten, a protein common in wheat, barley and rye. Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash

A study published in Science on April 7 found that common infections can provoke a sensitivity to certain foods, such as gluten, a protein common in wheat, barley and rye.

Using mice, the researchers discovered reovirus T1L incites the immune system to attack otherwise innocent food molecules by blocking the immune system’s regulatory response that permits foreign substances, like food molecules, passage. Reoviruses are common and generally benign, but, if ingested with gluten, the virus can trick immune systems into perceiving the food proteins as a threat.

People who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, suffer from intestinal problems if they consume gluten. The Celiac Disease Foundation notes that there are over 200 known symptoms of the disease, ranging from diarrhea to liver disorders.

Celiac disease has been linked to two distinct genetic features found in 30 to 40 percent of the population, yet only 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, suggesting that an environmental factor triggers this autoimmune response.

The researchers genetically engineered the mice they studied to have one of those features, and they found the reovirus may be a trigger in inducing their immune systems to attack gluten. The interaction observed by researchers occurs in the mesenteric lymph nodes, between gluten and dendritic cells of the immune system. Those cells determine whether the immune system engages a non-native substance in attacking it or ignores it. Celiac disease patients were found to have high levels of antibodies against the reovirus studied, two to five times greater than people without the disease.

“This study clearly shows that a virus that is not clinically symptomatic can still do bad things to the immune system and set the stage for an autoimmune disorder and for celiac disease in particular,” said Dr. Bana Jabri, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center and lead author of the study. “However, the specific virus and its genes, the interaction between the microbe and the host, and the health status of the host are all going to matter as well.”

The study promotes the possibility that vaccines or cures may be created to prevent celiac disease in children who carry the genes that pose a risk for the disease. Currently, the only known treatment for the disease is maintaining a strict gluten-free diet. “During the first year of life, the immune system is still maturing, so for a child with a particular genetic background, getting a particular virus at that time can leave a kind of scar that then has long term consequences,” Dr. Jabri added. “That’s why we believe that once we have more studies, we may want to think about whether children at high risk of developing Celiac disease should be vaccinated.”

Future research will seek to test the study’s results on humans and testing if other viruses can potentially trigger Celiac disease before an effective vaccine can be developed.