Gluten has become a buzzword in recent years with many people believing "gluten free" to be synonymous with healthy. For the average person, eating gluten should not be an issue but for someone with Celiac Disease, eating gluten can do serious damage to their digestive system. Once thought to be mostly related genetic factors, researchers have found that the development of Celiac Disease may also be attributed to a virus that was once thought to be completely harmless.

A brief introduction to Celiac Disease

For people with Celiac Disease a piece of bread can do a whole lot of damage.

Celiac is an autoimmune disorder in which the body recognizes gluten, a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye to be a foreign invader. In order to save itself from this molecule that it has deemed a threat, the immune system sends in white blood cells to destroy the invader. This is the same process that occurs anytime any unwelcome virus or bacteria enter the body. As a result of this bombardment, the intestinal cells are broken down leaving the sufferer unable to digest the nutrients from the food they eat causing them to become extremely malnourished. Typically symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, and nausea are associated with the disease but it often takes a while for this illness to be diagnosed.

It takes the average person up to ten years to be correctly diagnosed with Celiac Disease despite years of symptoms. After this long, the damage done to the intestines can be permanent.

The issue with genetics alone

It had previously been thought that Celiac Disease was entirely genetic meaning that if you had the right genes you would get the illness.

However, more recent research on the disease has shown that that may not be the case after all. Up to 30% of the population carries the genes yet only 1% of the population actually has the disease. This discrepancy is what drove Dr. Terence Dermody, head of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, to begin researching Reovirus to see if there might be another Trigger for the onset of the illness.

Reovirus and Celiac Disease

Reovirus is fairly common. Most Americans become infected with reovirus in childhood and are completely fine. In order to see if there was a link between reovirus and the development of this disease, scientists genetically engineered mice to be more susceptible to the development of Celiac Disease and then injected them with reovirus. When fed gluten containing foods, the mice infected with reovirus began to show the same symptoms of gluten intolerance as people with Celiac Disease. Dr. Dermody claims that in order for reovirus to initate this autoimmune disorder, the person must be exposed to gluten at the same time as the virus enters their system. This makes the body view gluten as a dangerous invader, causing a permanent immune response.

To see how these findings carried over to humans, researchers began looking at the antibody levels in different groups of people. Dermody and his team found that people with Celiac Disease had up to five times more of the reovirus-specific antibodies.

What all this means

If reovirus really is a trigger for Celiac Disease, scientists and medical professionals may be able to develop new strategies to help those who are genetically predisposed from developing the disease. For example, it would be possible to vaccinate children who are at a high risk for developing it against reovirus in hopes that it would prevent the development of the disease.