Researchers working to find cause of celiac disease

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Scientists at the University of Chicago are working to determine the cause of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. (WLS)

One in 133 Americans have celiac disease, although experts say many haven't been diagnosed. People with celiac disease have a reaction to gluten, which is present in anything made with wheat, rye, or barley. Researchers say they have found a potential cause for the condition, which brings them closer to a cure.

It's Mexican night at the Simon house. For this family, mealtime takes planning. Hannah, 10, was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago.

"Hannah was not well really from birth on," said Karen Simon, Hannah's mother.

Since her diagnosis, she avoids food with gluten. If she doesn't..."I throw up. A lot. My stomach hurts, a lot," Hannah said.

Scientists at the University of Chicago are working to determine the cause of celiac disease; an autoimmune disorder that causes the protein in gluten to damage the small intestine lining. Researchers know it is genetic.

"Once you have this genetic makeup, you are at very, very high risk of developing the disease," said Bana Jabri, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.

But not everyone with the gene develops the disorder. Bana Jabri and her colleagues say their research shows infection with a common, but mostly harmless virus, called the reovirus, can trigger the disease.

"When you ingest gluten and you have a viral infection all of a sudden the immune system thinks the gluten is like a virus and mounts an inflammatory immune response," Jabri said.

Jabri said researchers in her lab are looking at whether a vaccine against the virus could also prevent celiac disease. Right now, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet.

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