LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists have identified new genetic links to celiac disease and say their findings could speed the search for better ways to diagnose and treat the gluten-intolerance disorder.
British researchers scanned the genetic maps of more than 9,400 celiac patients and found areas of immune system disturbance which lead to the development of the auto-immune disease, which affects around one percent of people.
The researchers also found “substantial evidence” that genes associated with celiac disease may also be linked to many other common chronic immune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
“We can now shed light on some of the precise immune disturbances leading to celiac disease,” said David van Heel, a professor of gastrointestinal genetics at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, who led an international team of researchers in conducting the study.
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley and many other everyday items like medicines and vitamins. The disease damages structures in the lining of the small intestine called villi, impairing the body’s absorption of nutrients.
It can lead to severe health problems including anemia, poor bone health, fatigue and weight loss. There is no cure, and the only treatment is a life-long gluten-free diet.
Van Heel said his findings meant scientists could now see that many of the genetic risk factors for celiac disease work by altering the amount of immune system genes made by cells.
“The data also suggests that celiac disease is made up of hundreds of genetic risk factors, we can have a good guess at nearly half of the genetic risk at present,” he wrote in the study published in the Nature Genetics journal on Sunday.
Reporting by Kate Kelland