Roughly one in every 133 Americans has celiac disease, an immune disorder that often causes debilitating digestive symptoms because of a reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in certain grains including wheat. Though the exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, a new study out of Canada points to evidence that certain types of bacteria in the gut may play a role in its development.
While some individuals are genetically predisposed to developing celiac disease—meaning they have specific gene mutations known to trigger the condition—this is not always the case. In fact, according to research only a small percentage of people with those gene mutations ever develop the condition. That made scientists from the McMaster University Digestive Health Research Institute wonder what other factors may be at work.
Lead author Dr. Elena Verdu and her team examined three groups of gluten-intolerant mice: one with no gut bacteria at all, one with a wide range of gut microbes typically seen in normal mice, and one in which a specific type of harmful bacteria (Proteobacteria) as well as other pathogens were absent.
Findings from the study, to be published in The American Journal of Pathology, showed that differences in gut bacteria impact how the body reacts to gluten, and that the mice with no gut bacteria were the worst off. Not only did they exhibit increased levels of a type of white blood cell indicative of celiac disease, but they also suffered more cell death of healthy cells along the gastrointestinal tract.
Dr. Verdu and her colleagues believe the rise in cases of celiac disease over the last 50 years may be attributed to widespread changes in gut bacteria due to diet and other factors, and that gut imbalance may actually contribute to its development. Right now, the only way to treat celiac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet, but researchers hope it may one day be possible to help prevent and treat celiac disease in humans by altering their gut bacteria.