Coeliac disease may develop as result of ‘microbial exposure’

8 Jan 2020

Image: © peshkova/

Researchers have discovered it may be possible to develop coeliac disease following exposure to certain bacteria.

Coeliac disease, a hereditary autoimmune condition that’s estimated to affect one in 100 Irish people, may develop as a result of microbial exposure.

Researchers from Monash University in Australia have published findings to Molecular Biology showing that, at a molecular level, receptors isolated from immune T-cells among coeliac disease patients can recognise protein fragments from certain bacteria that mimic those fragments from gluten.

When exposed to these proteins, it could generate aberrant recognition of gluten by the same T-cells when a susceptible person eats cereals containing gluten.

“In coeliac disease you get aberrant reactivity to gluten and we have provided a proof-of-principle that there’s a link between gluten proteins and proteins that are found in some bacteria,” said Dr Hugh Reid, co-lead researcher of the study.

“That is, it’s possible that the immune system reacts to the bacterial proteins in a normal immune response and in so doing develops a reaction to gluten proteins because, to the immune system, they look indistinguishable – like a mimic.”

It has been known for some time that environmental factors play a role in triggering coeliac disease among those with a genetic predisposition for it, but exactly how it worked was unclear. It’s now hoped that these findings could eventually lead to diagnostic or therapeutic approaches to the disease.

Currently, if someone diagnosed with it continues to eat gluten without treatment, it can cause serious issues including malnutrition, osteoporosis, depression and infertility. There is also a small risk of certain forms of cancer developing, such as lymphoma of the small bowel.

A separate study recently found that those maintaining a gluten-free diet may unknowingly be eating gluten despite their best efforts.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic