An international research team have possibly identified a virus that triggers celiac disease.

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Gluten is a composite of storage proteins termed prolamins and glutelins found in wheat and related grains, including barley, rye and to a lesser degree in oat.

The diagnosis of celiac disease – a long-term autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the small intestine – has increased dramatically in recent decades. Celiac disease is caused by a reaction to gluten, which are various proteins found in wheat and in other grains such as barley, and rye.

Now an international research team has pinned down a plausible explanation to what triggers the disease. The researchers studied how two variants of so-called reovirus (reoviridae) affect the immune system when eating gluten. Reovirus is a common family of viruses in which most cases of virus infections are mild or subclinical in humans. They found that one particular virus in this family could trigger celiac disease.

We know that the two most important factors for developing celiac disease are genetics and eating gluten, but there must be something else that triggers the disease since there are those who eat gluten and who have the genetic traits but do not develop the disease. Therefore, there must be at least one more factor.

After collecting samples from people diagnosed with celiac disease, researchers could see that they also had signs of virus infections. To find out if these viral infections were the cause of celiac disease, the researchers infected mice with two different variants of reovirus. They discovered that one of these viruses could get the immune system to behave abnormally and start reacting to gluten.

The first virus variant the researchers investigated was the T1L, a rotavirus, which infects the intestines and interferes with the immune system. Since it affects the gastrointestinal tract, the area where celiac disease is located, they reasoned that it might be involved. Byt rotavirus did not trigger gluten intolerance.

The second virus tested did, however, the reovirus called T3D. The researchers had developed its own variant of the virus, T3D-RV, that was able to infect the intestines, which the virus normally don’t, but in rare cases does. It turned out that T3D-RV could get the immune system to turn against gluten. The virus confused the immune system so that the body suddenly deemed gluten as dangerous, triggering an allergic reaction.

The researchers believe that armed with this new knowledge, it will become possible to identify the key aspects to what makes the virus trigger celiac disease. They believe that the study may lead to better treatment for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease. They also hope that we will be able to develop a vaccine for in the future.

Celiac disease should not be confused with gluten sensitivity, for more information, we published an article a year ago ‘Should everyone eat a gluten-free diet?’ on the topic.

Bouziat Romain, et al. Reovirus Infection triggers inflammatory responses to dietary antigens and development of celiac disease. Science, 2017. DOI: 10.1126 / science.aah5298