A virus known to be typically harmless might play a significant role in triggering celiac disease. According to a new study, researchers say that among mice who have been genetically engineered to be predisposed to celiac disease, those which were also infected with a reovirus were far more likely to have an immune response against gluten than in those similarly engineered mice not infected with a reovirus. More importantly, though, the research team says that this immune response is similar to what we see among humans who have this conditions.

Basically, University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center director of research, Dr. Bana Jabri explains, “A virus that is not clinically symptomatic can still do bad things to the immune system and set the stage for an autoimmune disorder [like celiac disease].”

As such, the study co-author notes that it is important to recognize how a reovirus infection can leave a “permanent mark” on the immune system, which can increase the risk for developing celiac disease.

If you weren’t aware, celiac diases is a condition caused by an abnormal immune response to the protein in gluten. Gluten, of course, is a key component of wheat, rye, barley, and other grains. The condition is characterized by damage to the lining of the small intestine; more importantly, its only treatment is a gluten-free diet.
Basically, the study found that in those mice which had been infected with the reovirus strain, the immune system could not tolerate the presence of gluten. Specifically, this translate to patients who have celiac disease also had a higher level of reovirus antibodies than those who did not have the autoimmune disease.

Dr. Jabri goes on to say, “This study clearly shows that a virus that is not clinically symptomatic can still do bad things to the immune system and set the stage for an autoimmune disorder, and for celiac disease in particular. However, the specific virus and its genes, the interaction between the microbe and the host, and the health status of the host are all going to matter as well.”

All of this tells us, the researchers say, that viruses like this could play a major role in developing new treatments for autoimmune disorders like celiac disease, of course, but also other autoimmune diseases, like type 1 diabetes.

Dr. Jabri concludes: “During the first year of life, the immune system is still maturing, so for a child with a particular genetic background, getting a particular virus at that time can leave a kind of scar that then has long-term consequences.”