A new research suggests that virus infections may be a contributing factor in onset of gluten intolerance (celiac disease.)
Gluten intolerance is an autoimmune reaction in the small intestine. The gluten that occurs naturally in grains such as wheat, barley and rye causes damage to the intestinal villi, problems with nutrient absorption and potentially other problems too. Gluten intolerance is an inherited predisposition, and nearly all sufferers carry the genes that play a key part in the onset of the condition. The only known effective treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.
A research project in the Academy of Finland's Research Programme on Nutrition, Food and Health (ELVIRA) has shed new light on the hereditary nature of gluten intolerance and identified genes that carry a higher risk of developing the condition. Research has revealed that the genes in question are closely linked with the human immune system and the occurrence of inflammations, rather than being connected with the actual breakdown of gluten in the digestive tract.
Academy Research Fellow Päivi Saavalainen, who has conducted research into the hereditary risk factors for gluten intolerance, said: "Some of the genes we have identified are linked with human immune defense against viruses. This may indicate that virus infections may be connected in some way with the onset of gluten intolerance."
Saavalainen explains that the genes that predispose people to gluten intolerance are very widespread in the population and, consequently, they are only a minor part of the explanation for the way in which gluten intolerance is inherited. However, the knowledge of the genes behind gluten intolerance is valuable since it helps scientists explore the reasons behind gluten intolerance, which in turn builds potential for developing new treatments and preventive methods. This is crucial, because the condition is often relatively symptom-free, yet it can have serious complications unless treated.
Researchers have localized the risk genes by using data on patients and on entire families. The material in the Finnish study is part of a very extensive study of thousands of people with gluten intolerance and control groups in nine different populations.
The research will appear in a coming issue of Nature Genetics.