Here’s how an otherwise humdrum virus sparks celiac disease

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2017-04-07

Enlarge / Viruses in the Reoviridae family. (credit: CDC)

Throughout our lives, many viruses sneak into our intestines, silently mount cellular invasions like tiny little Hannibals crossing the microbiological Alps, then just as quietly slip away unnoticed. Usually, those stealthy viral invaders are completely innocuous—decidedly unnoteworthy. But sometimes they inadvertently set off a lifetime of haywire immune responses and disease, according to a new study published Thursday in Science.

According to the authors of a new study, a stopover by one such covert reovirus in the gut of someone with a genetic predisposition for celiac disease can do just that, triggering the lifelong autoimmune disease. More specifically, the virus primes their immune systems to shut down regulatory cells that hold back overly aggressive immune responses. Then, when they eat gluten—a group of proteins found in wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye—their immune systems mistakenly treat the proteins as toxic and mount a damaging inflammatory response, leading to discomfort and gastrointestinal problems.

Though researchers had hints before that viruses were involved in the onset of celiac disease, the study offers the first detailed molecular mechanism for exactly how they are involved. And that information opens the door to the idea that vaccines could be used against those incognito viral infections as a way to thwart the disease all together.

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