Gluten seems to have become one of humanity's greatest dietary enemies. The push to keep this sticky protein substance out of our intestines has fostered an entire gluten-free industry. Although for most people this is little more than a lifestyle choice, about one per cent of the Canadian population actually needs to avoid this foodstuff completely. These individuals suffer from celiac disease, and the slightest exposure can lead to troubling health problems.
The cause of celiac disease has been known for some time. A part of the immune system that recognizes foreign invaders inadvertently considers gluten to be an enemy. When this happens, our biological defence force gets to work by causing a strong inflammatory response and provoking a variety of symptoms, similar to a gastrointestinal infection. Most sufferers will encounter bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain. But chronic issues can arise such as anemia, arthritis, bone loss and depression.
The easiest way to prevent symptoms is to go gluten-free. However patients tend to find this incredibly hard and tend to feel more burdened by the constant search for appropriate foods. This has led to a push for treatments to help people live a better life.
Researchers mainly have focused on two ways to prevent symptoms. The first is to attack gluten with enzymes to destroy the protein altogether. The other focuses on keeping the intestinal barrier intact so there is less absorption of the gluten protein. Both have shown some promise; however, they have faced challenged in the clinical trial process.
They determined the best approach was to develop an antibody.
There is a third option, although until recently it hasn't been given much thought. One can bring a halt to the immune system's reaction by silencing the mechanism giving the body marching orders. However, researchers first had to find the molecule responsible for commanding the defence forces to act.
That happened in 2009 when a team of researchers found a molecule known as Interleukin 15, or IL-15, which seemed to be the main trigger for the inflammatory attack. With this information in hand, researchers looked for the best approach to silence the signal. They determined the best approach was to develop an antibody.
Antibodies have been used for years as treatments for several diseases such as arthritis, Crohn's disease and eczema. Much like celiac disease, these conditions have a known immunological trigger. The antibodies stick to these molecules like Crazy Glue and prevent them from carrying out their tasks. The result is calmer immune function and less symptoms.
The first antibodies showed up in 2011 and other versions followed. While these discoveries were significant, there was still one problem. As much as the scientists believed the antibodies would help, they didn't know how effective they would be at the molecular level.
That gap was filled last month thanks to an international team of researchers. They used the IL-15 antibody in monkeys who suffered from the same symptoms as celiac patients. Not surprisingly, the group saw what they wanted. There was a reduction in the inflammatory conditions that lead to the pain and discomfort upon eating gluten. There was even a bonus surprise as the antibody also helped to keep inflammation down when the animals were on a gluten-free diet.
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Normally, when a study like this comes out, people are told that treatments may be decades away. However, in this case, that timeline may be much shorter. This is because there is already an IL-15 antibody in the clinical trials pipeline. The antibody has gone through some clinical trials and recently has been shown to have a positive effect in celiac patients. In light of the monkey study showing the mechanism of action, there is hope the drug may get approval in a much shorter time.
For those who suffer from celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities, the promise of an effective treatment is no doubt a step in the right direction. With an antibody option, these individuals finally may be able to manage the condition effectively instead of having no choice but to deal with the burden of trying to avoid gluten exposure. Not only could it improve their lives, but it also may help them save money in light of the higher cost of a gluten-free lifestyle.
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