Celiac disease: A look at what triggers it, possible prevention


HOUSTON – One in 133 Americans have celiac disease, although experts say many haven’t been diagnosed. People with celiac disease have a reaction to gluten, which is present in anything made with wheat, rye or barley. Researchers say they have found a potential cause for the condition, which brings them closer to a cure.

It’s Mexican night at the Simon house. For this family, mealtime takes planning. Ten-year-old Hannah was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago.

“Hannah was not well really from birth on.” Karen Simon, Hannah’s mother said.

Since her diagnosis, she avoids food with gluten. If she doesn’t, “I throw up. A lot. My stomach hurts, a lot,” Hannah said.

Scientists at the University of Chicago are working to determine the cause of celiac disease; an autoimmune disorder that causes the protein in gluten to damage the small intestine lining. Researchers know it is genetic.

“Once you have this genetic makeup, you are at very, very high risk of developing the disease,” Bana Jabri, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center said.

But not everyone with the gene develops the disorder. Bana Jabri and her colleagues say their research shows infection with a common, but mostly harmless virus, called the reovirus, can trigger the disease.

“When you ingest gluten and you have a viral infection all of a sudden the immune system thinks the gluten is like a virus and mounts an inflammatory immune response,” Jabri stated.

Jabri says researchers in her lab are looking at whether a vaccine against the virus could also prevent celiac disease. Right now, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet.

“There’s substitutes for most of the things that you eat that have gluten in them,” Hannah said.

Hannah approaches celiac with a sense of humor; dressing for Halloween as a gluten-free donut. It’s as close to gluten as she wants to get.

Babies are usually given their first solid foods at about six months, often containing gluten. Jabri says children are more susceptible to viral infections at this age, and those who have the celiac gene could be at higher risk at that point for developing celiac disease.