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Canadian researchers developing treatment for celiac disease

Canadian researchers developing treatment for celiac disease
McMaster University researchers say they've discovered a molecule that could hold the key to developing a new therapy to help people with celiac disease. AP Photo/Jon Elswick

TORONTO — You won’t be able to order anything off the menu at a restaurant, but new Canadian research could give people living with celiac disease some flexibility in what they eat.

McMaster University researchers say they’ve discovered a molecule that could hold the key to developing a new therapy to help people with celiac disease.

There are about 300,000 Canadians living with celiac disease, according to Health Canada. It’s a food sensitivity triggered by gluten, causing damage to the small intestine while leaving patients with inflammation and abdominal pain among other symptoms.

Right now, the only way people manage celiac disease is by following a strict gluten-free diet, avoiding wheat, barley and rye.

It isn’t easy, though.

“Even when patients try their best and they’re on a gluten-free diet, there can be inadvertent contamination. Patients tell us it’s difficult to be completely 100 per cent gluten-free,” according to the study’s lead author Dr. Elena Verdu.

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She’s an associate professor of medicine at McMaster, where she also runs a clinic looking after patients with celiac disease.

READ MORE: Gluten-free tops Canada’s hottest food trends for 2014

In her research, Verdu identified a molecule called elafin, which is found in the gut, that could help protect against gluten sensitivity.

The molecule acts as a housekeeper in your gastrointestinal tract, Verdu explains. It’s released to downgrade inflammation.

When we eat meat, for example, our enzymes break down the protein into amino acids.

In people with celiac disease, the body’s enzymes can’t break down gluten and it seeps through the intestinal tract and into the immune system, triggering symptoms. Verdu guesses that they may have lower levels of elafin.

While studying rats, Verdu gave the gluten-sensitive group a source of elafin in a food-grade bacteria. With the extra dosage of elafin, they were more capable of handling low levels of gluten.

“This is encouraging news. It means the scientific community is developing adjuvant therapies to make [people’s] lives easier so they can avoid this fear that I know celiac patients have,” Verdu said.

READ MORE: Do fad diets followed by celebrities work?

Other therapies are in the works around the world, some even in clinical stages, Verdu said. But none of them “cure” people of celiac disease — typically, they just help to minimize symptoms if small amounts of gluten are eaten.

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“None of these therapies are free tickets,” she said.

It’s far too early for Verdu to test her findings on humans. For now, she’s going to keep studying elafin’s effects on animal models and in different delivery systems.

READ MORE: 13 tips for eating healthier in 2014

For now, it’s used in bacteria that are often used as a fermenter in the food industry. It could come in a pill form, or as a probiotic in dairy like milk or cheese.

Verdu’s complete findings were published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Her research was funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, which handed her $100,000 each year for four years. Verdu has two years of funding left in her grant.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca