University Research Advances Understanding of Celiac Disease

The research has discovered that an infection with the normally harmless reovirus can produce an immune system response to gluten that leads to celiac disease.

By Stephanie Palazzolo

New research from the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests that an infection with the normally harmless reovirus can produce an immune system response to gluten that leads to celiac disease, a disease where the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten.  

A reovirus is an RNA virus associated with respiratory and enteric infection. Published in Science, the study used mice infected with this virus to show that a slight genetic variation of the virus triggered an inflammatory immune system response that led to the loss of oral tolerance to gluten. 

“This 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,” said study senior author Bana Jabri, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Medicine and Pediatrics and director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, in a statement to Science Daily. 

Jabri also emphasized that other factors, like the virus’s genes and the health of the host, play a role as well. For example, because the immune system is weak during infancy, the introduction of a reovirus could lead to the development of celiac disease later in life. Evidence of higher levels of antibodies against reoviruses in patients with celiac disease supports this theory as well. 

“[W]e 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,” Jabri said to Science Daily.  

Jabri and her team plan on continuing their research on the connection between viruses and immune-mediated diseases and the possibilities of using vaccines during infancy for prevention.