The condition is triggered by an abnormal immune response upon consumption of foods containing gluten - a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
However, the researchers of the new study - including Dr. Terence Dermody, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania - say their findings indicate that vaccination against certain viruses could help to prevent the disease.
"What's striking about this study is in the background a virus that produces no overt clinical symptoms [can] profoundly change the way the immune system sees a dietary protein, and it sets the stage for celiac disease", said the study's senior author Dr. Bana Jabri, professor and director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
Further research will be needed to determine how the timing of infections affects development of celiac, and whether other food allergies and autoimmune disorders develop in a similar manner. Celiac disease is characterized as an autoimmune disease that can trigger the body to mount an immune response against ingested gluten. Though those immune cell mutations are known risk factors, only 3 to 4 percent of people with those mutations go on to develop celiac disease. This is evident from the growth in gluten-free food sales and most recently, the introduction of gluten-free dining halls on two college campuses.
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Also, the study brings into attention the fact that a virus which was regarded as harmless can have awful consequences on certain people.
"For those genetically predisposed to celiac disease, the combination of an intestinal reovirus infection with the first exposure to gluten could create the right conditions for developing celiac", the researchers said in a news release.
For people with celiac disease, gluten can wreak havoc on their digestive systems. This response causes damage on the small intestine.
For the first time, a biological pathway leading to celiac disease has been described, raising potential for preventive measures including a vaccine.
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A common and usually harmless virus may trigger celiac disease.
"Epidemiologic studies show infection could be a trigger but no-one's ever really shown how that would happen". This would save people from suffering celiac disease-like symptoms and rid them of the fear to eat food rich in gluten, the New Scientist reported. Those with higher levels of antibodies also had higher levels of the molecule IRF-1, which plays a key role in the loss of gluten tolerance. And our understanding of coeliac disease as an autoimmune response doesn't explain why the body should have a response specifically for partially-digested gluten, as opposed to the same response it has for all other partially-digested proteins. One that suggests that autoimmune diseases may also be caused by outside pathogens and their influence on the body. As a result, the person starts to show symptoms of celiac disease.
The initial viral infection may set the stage for affliction with celiac disease at a later point in the child's life.
"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", she added.
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