A slice of pizza might not be the healthiest dinner for anybody, but for people with celiac disease, it can begin a cycle that can lead to intestinal damage that can be life-threatening. With celiac’s rapid emergence as a health concern in the U.S., scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation have begun studying the condition.
“In celiac disease, people react to a family of proteins called gluten, which is found in grains like wheat and some oats,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “The body’s immune system turns against itself, causing damage to the lining of the small intestine.”
That damage prevents the body from absorbing nutrients, causing malnutrition, dramatic weight loss and damage to the small bowel that, if left untreated, can be life-threatening. But once gluten is removed from the diet, the body begins to repair the intestinal injury.
Over the past two decades, the incidence of celiac disease has risen sharply, with an estimated 2.5 million Americans now suffering the disorder. Part of that could be explained by general awareness of the disease, said Prescott, but doctors still aren’t sure what’s causing the spike in patients.
That unexplained increase sparked the interest of OMRF researchers, who have long studied other “autoimmune” conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. In these diseases, like celiac, something causes the body to begin attacking itself.
OMRF scientist Swapan Nath, Ph.D., is comparing DNA samples from patients with celiac disease to those suffering from other autoimmune diseases. He has found evidence that the diseases may share some common genetic roots.
“We’ve long known that family members with lupus are genetically predisposed to having lupus,” said Nath. “But we’re now seeing that having a relative with one autoimmune disease could increase the odds that a patient might develop a different autoimmune disease.”
Nath said scientists have already found some common genes linking celiac disease to other autoimmune diseases, and he’s currently collecting samples in order to find more.
“This research may be able to tell us more about why celiac disease is on the rise,” Prescott said. “We know removing gluten from the diet can stop the symptoms of celiac disease from harming patients, but there are still many mysteries about the disease we haven’t solved.”