Celiac Disease: Scientists Discover Why Gluten is Attacked by the Immune System

First Posted: Jun 30, 2015 12:35 PM EDT

Celiac disease can be a huge strain on patients and their families. The immune system of patients with celiac disease reacts to gluten proteins from cereal grains, causing inflammation of the mucous membrane in the small intestine. Now, scientists have discovered what they believe to be the cause of celiac disease.

"Human leucocyte antigens (HLAs) are found as genetically determined variants in all humans," said Ludvig M. Sollid, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The task of HLAs is to bind to fragments of proteins that are broken down in the cells, transport the fragments to the cell surface and present them to T-lymphocytes.

T-lymphocytes, or T-cells, are important to the human's immune system. They detect infections by finding remnants of viruses as fragments bound to HLAs. If they're detected, then the immune system will make sure that the infection is killed. When it comes to people with celiac disease, though, their T-cells think gluten is a virus or bacterium.

Celiac disease is a partly hereditary disease. If you develop the disease, though, you have to change your diet and live with the disease the rest of your life. It can give rise to stomach pain, lethargy and poor nutrient absorption.

In this latest study, the researchers discovered that there were two types of HLA (HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8) which predispose a person for celiac disease. The two HLA types also present gluten remnants to T-cells. This means that the T-cells believe gluten is dangerous. This, in essence, is what causes celiac disease.

"IT is possible that this type of reaction to alien substances may also be involved in other autoimmune diseases," said Sollid. "It may be a particular virus or a particular bacterium. We just don't know what it is in the different diseases. This has given researchers all over the world and entirely new approach to understanding these disorders."

The findings may give scientists a way to better develop treatments for autoimmune disorders. That said, more testing will be necessary to confirm their findings.

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