Researchers Find Differences in Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity

Apr 30, 2011

Molecular-level differences change immune response

Researchers at the University of Maryland say they have proven that gluten sensitivity is different from celiac disease.

According to a research published online in BMC Medicine, scientific evidence shows a difference at the molecular level and in the response elicited from the immune system; however, it also shows that both are part of a spectrum of gluten-related disorders.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Center for Celiac Research, said that the differences were seen in intestinal complications and genes that regulate immune response in the digestive tract.

“Identifying and isolating specific ‘biomarkers’ in the immune response of people with gluten sensitivity could lead to diagnostic tools for the condition,” says Dr. Fasano, who also directs the University of Maryland School of Medicine Mucosal Biology Research Center.

In people with celiac disease, gluten -- often found in wheat, rye and barley -- sets off an autoimmune reaction that attacks the small intestine.

Officials said that if celiac disease is left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders, as well as osteoporosis, infertility and neurological conditions and, in rare cases, cancer.

Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity is not associated with these serious conditions. Common symptoms of gluten sensitivity include abdominal pain similar to irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, headaches, “foggy mind” or tingling of the extremities.

“Imagine gluten ingestion on a spectrum,” said Fasano. “At one end, you have people with celiac disease, who cannot tolerate one crumb of gluten in their diet. At the other end, you have the lucky people who can eat pizza, beer, pasta and cookies—and have no ill effects whatsoever. In the middle, there is this murky area of gluten reactions, including gluten sensitivity. This is where we are looking for answers about how to best diagnose and treat this recently identified group of gluten-sensitive individuals.”

There is also evidence that a subgroup of schizophrenic patients and autistic children might be affected by gluten sensitivity, researchers said.

The Center for Celiac Research estimated that nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population, or 18 million people, suffer from gluten sensitivity.


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