Bacterial Link Discovered in Celiac Disease – Mimicry of Gluten Proteins

Celiac Disease Mimicry Artwork

Artwork depicting the way bacterial proteins mimic gluten proteins, causing an immune response to celiac disease. Credit: Artist in residence Erica Tandori, from the Rossjohn laboratory at Monash University

Bacterial exposure has been identified as a potential environmental risk factor in developing celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune-like condition that affects about one in 70 Australians.

It is estimated that half of all Australians are born with one of two genes that cause celiac disease, and approximately one in 40 are likely to develop the condition.

People with celiac disease must follow a lifelong gluten-free diet, as even small amounts of gluten can cause health problems.

While environmental factors are known to trigger Celiac Disease in those with the genetic predisposition, exactly how that works has remained unclear.

Scientists from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) and ARC Center of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging, have now provided a molecular foundation for microbial exposure as a potential environmental factor in the development of celiac disease.

The results of the study, done in collaboration with researchers at Leiden University Medical Center and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, have been published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

Co-Lead researcher Dr. Hugh Reid, from Monash University, said the team showed, at the molecular level, how receptors isolated from immune T cells from celiac disease patients can recognize protein fragments from certain bacteria that mimic those fragments from gluten.

Exposure to such bacterial proteins may be involved in the generation of aberrant recognition of gluten by these same T cells when susceptible individuals eat cereals containing gluten, he said.

“In celiac 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,” he said.

“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.”

Dr. Reid said the findings could eventually lead to diagnostic or therapeutic approaches to celiac disease.

Reference: “T cell receptor cross-reactivity between gliadin and bacterial peptides in celiac disease” by Jan Petersen, Laura Ciacchi, Mai T. Tran, Khai Lee Loh, Yvonne Kooy-Winkelaar, Nathan P. Croft, Melinda Y. Hardy, Zhenjun Chen, James McCluskey, Robert P. Anderson, Anthony W. Purcell, Jason A. Tye-Din, Frits Koning, Hugh H. Reid and Jamie Rossjohn, 23 December 2019, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
DOI: 10.1038/s41594-019-0353-4

About celiac disease

Celiac disease is caused by an aberrant reaction of the immune system to gluten, a protein that occurs naturally in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, and oats, and therefore is typically found in bread, pastries, and cakes. Immune system cells, known as T cells, regard gluten as a foreign substance, and initiate action against it.

In patients with CD, activation of these T cells leads to an inflammatory response in the small intestine causing a wide range of symptoms including diarrhea, bloating and malabsorption of nutrients, to name a few.

People with celiac disease must follow a lifelong gluten-free diet, as even small amounts of gluten can cause health problems. If left untreated, the disease can cause serious issues including malnutrition, osteoporosis, depression, and infertility, and there is a small increased risk of certain forms of cancer, such as lymphoma of the small bowel.


View Comments

  • I was thrilled to read your article about gluten and bacteria! The rest of the world knows not how loathsome this disease is. I think you should shout this from the rooftops! Please God, may this lead to a remedy for all of us.

  • I believe oats do not contain gluten but are often cross contaminated during production (e.g. by being grown close to wheat fields).

    As such, it shouldn't be listed as one of the grains containing gluten at the end of the article.

  • Yes, I am pretty sure Simon is correct. Oats do not contain gluten except through cross contamination from gluten containing grains.

  • For the oats comments--the protein in oats is similar to gluten and many people with celiac disease react to them.

  • Oats contain a protein very similar to gluten, 10% of coeliacs also react to it. I'm one of those unfortunately. So, most newly diagnosed coeliacs are advised not to eat oats for a given time span to allow the body to heal. Then to try reintroducing them. Some people will react, some won't. So technically while there's no gluten in oats unless by cross contamination, people with CD are usually wary of them.

  • Just found out that im gluten free having a hard time adjusting I have been reading about it and they say it takes time Its a change for me

  • Just over two months diagnosed as Coeliac and finding adhering strictly to the GF diet tough. It's limiting, expensive and anti-social but really has made an improvement to my symptoms.This is fascinating information...could be huge advances in help for Coeliacs ahead.

  • Marina.... it can be daunting; however, it dosen't need to be expensive or isolating. Think of it as what you can eat. Fast food or out to eat, equals burger with no bun or giant salad with meat and no croutons.

    • Eating out at restaurants that are not dedicated gluten-free may be unsafe for people with celiac disease, though, as food can easily be cross-contaminated. Unfortunately it's not as simple as it seems it would be.

  • I had terrible reaction to gluten, like stomach flue or badly spoiled food. Based on some reading I cut all grain and corn carbs, an all symptoms disappeared in 2 days. At the time it seemed that my problem was bacterial origin, and taking ciprofloxacin for some weeks I could eat all grains without adverse symptoms. Then for decades I was OK on a wheat free diet. But lately taking probiotics I can tolerate high quality wheat that is not 'enriched' with emulsifiers and other artificial additives. How can this be explained? I was never diagnosed as a true celiac.

Monash University

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