Celiac disease can be a real nightmare disorder, often making life uncomfortable to the affected ones. At least one in 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease and many aren’t diagnosed. Usually, it is considered as a genetic autoimmune disease, but researchers have found evidence that this condition could be triggered by viral infections.

Researchers find reoviruses can trigger an immune response to gluten, further implicating viruses in the development of autoimmune disorders.

The Role Of Reovirus

Celiac disease, as an autoimmune disorder, has been associated with two genetic features. Scientists thought that must be something coded in the DNA that causes the immune system to attack the body in the presence of wheat gluten. Though 30 to 40 percent of people in the United States have one or both of these features and only 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed with the disease. This disparity was enough to arouse the suspicion of the researchers from the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Centre. They began to think that some environmental factor has to do with the development of the disease.

Illustrated viral trigger A reovirus. Image credit: Science Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Researchers used genetically engineered mice who had been made susceptible to gluten intolerance and infected them with the reovirus strain T1L. This reovirus was suspected that tricks the immune system into seeing gluten as an enemy. Interestingly, T1L is so harmless that often people don’t even realize that they’ve been infected. However, experiments showed that in combination with a genetic predisposition can trigger celiac disease. The study also found that celiac disease patients had much higher levels of antibodies against reoviruses than those without the disease.

In the US, babies are usually given their first solid foods, containing gluten, around 6 months. Their immature immune systems are more susceptible to viral infections, meaning that those with a genetic predisposition to celiac disease are easier to develop it.

More studies are also needed to determine if the timing of a reovirus infection plays a role in the development of celiac disease. The only treatment for celiac disease is gluten-free diet, and if these findings confirm, could lead to the new treatment options such as a development of a vaccine as a prevention.