Is a Virus to Blame for Gluten Sensitivity? New Science Says Yes

Updated: May 04, 2017

New findings have scientists one step closer to understanding how celiac disease develops. Find out what this means for you.

gpointstudio/ShutterstockNot too long ago, just getting a diagnosis for celiac disease was tough. The symptoms of upset stomach and diarrhea were vague, and docs didn’t know a lot about the condition—a sensitivity to the gluten protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. People with celiac have such trouble with digestion that they can suffer malnutrition. The condition affects an estimated one in 100 people worldwide, reports the Celiac Disease Foundation, and nearly 2.5 million Americans are as yet undiagnosed. Now research suggests that celiac may be caused by a virus, according to a study published in the journal Science. The new findings suggest that a vaccine could one day prevent the condition from ever taking hold.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have found that infections with reovirus, a “common but otherwise harmless virus,” according to Bana Jabri MD, PhD, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center triggers an immune response that may lead to celiac disease. Dr. Jabri, the study’s senior author, said in a press release that the “study clearly shows that a virus that is not clinically symptomatic can still do bad things to the immune system and set the stage for an autoimmune disorder, and for celiac disease in particular.” (Learn how celiac disease is linked to anorexia nervosa and a possible increased exposure risk to arsenic.)

The team fed two reovirus strains to mice; the viruses were essentially the same, other than a slight genetic difference. The common human reovirus triggered an inflammatory immune response in the mice, and the animals lost their ability to tolerate gluten. The other strain had no such effect.

“We have been studying reovirus for some time, and we were surprised by the discovery of a potential link between reovirus and celiac disease,” reported Terence Dermody, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The study also revealed that celiac patients seem to have genetic susceptibility to the disease: Their bodies produced much higher levels of antibodies against the reovirus compared to those without celiac disease.

The researchers say the findings indicate viruses could be responsible for a number of “complex immune-mediated diseases,” and there’s a chance a vaccine against viruses in the intestine may be able to prevent children from developing celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders. “During the first year of life, the immune system is still maturing, so for a child with a particular genetic background, getting a particular virus at that time can leave a kind of scar that then has long-term consequences,” Dr. Jabri said. “That’s why we believe that once we have more studies, we may want to think about whether children at high risk of developing celiac disease should be vaccinated.”