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Celiac Disease and Reovirus: A link in the chain to celiac development

What is gluten, celiac disease and the link connecting celiac disease and reovirus? These are all questions we will investigate in the first Science Bite!

So I may have dragged my feet a bit on getting the Science Bite page of The Beader Chef going – but it has come to an end, starting with celiac disease and reovirus!


Hopefully, as readers, you find these science bite posts just as interesting as I believe it is to write them. Let me know what you think! Also, this particular post is special: for one, my master’s project somewhat involves inflammation caused by viruses, and two (more importantly) I know someone dear to me that has been touched by having to go gluten-free recently, and trust me when I say gluten is EVERYWHERE.

Just think: uncoated french fries are gluten-free but if they were fried in oil that also was used to fry battered fish, that oil becomes gluten contaminated and therefore those french fried we were about to order are no longer gluten-free – *sigh*.

Now, before getting all science-y on ya – but really I won’t – there are a couple of things we need to know about gluten and celiac and then I’ll explain what my fellow scientific colleagues have discovered.


What is Gluten?

Gluten is the collective name given to a mixture proteins that are found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. Because it is found in these grains, it makes a presence in a lot of staple foods found in our pantries: breads, pastas, granola, tortillas and even some alcohols all contain gluten. It is important for these foods, especially bread, because when mixed with water the gluten adds rigidity, elasticity and a sticky like nature to the dough so that it can be rolled out, rise while it cooks and hold its structure once out of the oven.

Celiac Disease and Reovirus: Bread containing gluten for structure

Think of air bubbles in your favorite loaf of crusty bread. Without gluten those wouldn’t exist because the removal of gluten often causes baked goods not to rise to their full potential (or not at all) because the dough cannot maintain the air-bubbles after baking; also, dough cannot be rolled out properly because it is not elastic enough (trust me, I tried making gluten-free soft pretzels using my recipe with a gluten-free flour blend and it was a nightmare), or the taste is just off because the end result is more dense.

Luckily, with increased understanding of celiac disease, the growing trend of people eliminating gluten from their diets for personal reasons other than a celiac diagnosis, and the growing science of cooking without gluten, there are many gluten-free friendly cookbooks and blogs that are being published! (I don’t specifically have a gluten-free category, but search gluten-free and I’ve tagged all the recipes that are!)

One of my favourite gluten-free resources? Gluten Free Girl’s Blog and her two cookbooks Gluten-Free Girl Everyday (James Beard Award for Focus on Health) and Gluten-Free Girl American Classics Reinvented.


What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease (also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy or celiac sprue) is an autoimmune disease that is caused by an immune response after the consumption of gluten containing foods.

Briefly, the immune system of those suffering from celiac disease deem gluten an invader to the body within the gut (much like unwanted bacteria) and therefore it tries to eliminate it by evoking an immune response that causes inflammation.

Because gluten is consumed by most individuals daily, the constant inflammation causes damage to the inner lining (the villi, pictured below) of the small intestine reducing its ability to absorb essential nutrients found in food, such as: iron, vitamins, protein, fats and other compounds.

Celiac Disease and Reovirus: Normal and damaged villi of the small intestine

As for celiac symptoms? Symptoms vary from one celiac individual to the next, some of the most common in adults are: stomach pain, gas, diarrhea and weight loss… But there are a boat load of others and some people may not experience anything! Check out this awesome infographic made by the Gluten Dude!


How do you get Celiac Disease?

Immune intolerance to gluten and getting diagnosed with celiac disease doesn’t just happen. Often, celiac disease can be traced back to other family members and therefore a predisposition to the disease can be inherited (genes passed from the parents to their children).  However, having this inherited predisposition doesn’t necessarily mean the development of celiac disease for an individual.

Why is this the case? Celiac disease, like many other diseases, is caused by various different factors, namely inherited predispositions and environmental factors. It is scientific research on these two points that can help us better understand the development of the disease in the hopes to prevent, treat and potentially cure.

But for now, once you have a diagnosis there is no cure or treatment and the only way to alleviate symptoms is to go on a strictly gluten-free diet… BUT KEEP READING! THERE IS HOPE!


Scientific Breakthrough!

Recently (very recently, like April 6th 2017 recently) new research from the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine was published in Science Magazine. It outlines the link between how reovirus infection (viruses usually found in the respiratory tract and gastrointestinal system that normally cause no symptoms, and pictured below) can trigger a change in intestinal immunity that initiates the loss of gluten tolerance and therefore may be the initiating event in the development of celiac disease.

Celiac Disease and Reovirus: 3D reovirus model

Why are these findings so important? They help us better understand why certain individuals who have celiac disease without a prior family history of the disease may develop it – a case of circumstances, perhaps although other family members are also predisposed they have not developed celiac disease because they have not encountered a virus that caused change in intestinal immunity.

But more importantly, as suggested by authors of the research article (two of which are affiliated with Université de Montréal, where I’m studying!!!) the identification of viruses that can trigger changes in immune response can help researchers design vaccines to prevent celiac disease and potentially other autoimmune disorders in at-risk populations, like those how have inherited a predisposition.

This study also shows that it is not a class of viruses that cause changes in immune function. However, different categories within a virus family. To show this, the investigators of the study used two genetically different strains of reovirus finding that their genetic differences caused one to change intestinal immunity leading to immune intolerance to gluten, and the other had no effect.

Although this is exciting news and it will help in the understanding of celiac disease and different environmental factors that play a role in celiac disease development, the authors also point out that celiac disease is a multifactorial disease in which we still don’t know all the causes. Yes, this new research showed that certain reovirus strains have the ability to change intestinal immunity and other virus strains should be investigated. Yet, the study also demonstrated that in both human and mouse models of celiac disease, reovirus infection did cause immune cells to recognize gluten as bad and dangerous, but it did not lead to the inflammation that is known to cause damage seen in the small intestine.

So as the title of this Science Bite states, reovirus may only be a link in what could be a very long chain to celiac disease development – but it is a scientific breakthrough nonetheless!


Hope you enjoyed!


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