Protective molecule may lead to new therapies for celiac disease

Researchers have discovered a key molecule that may someday help treat patients with celiac disease, an immune condition triggered by gluten consumption.

New research from the Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada has found that the molecule elafin is significantly decreased in individuals with celiac disease. Elafin, which is present in the intestine of healthy individuals, serves a “housekeeping” role in the body by lowering the body’s immune response, strengthening and protecting the intestinal lining and limiting the amount of gluten that crosses into the body.

“Replenishing [elafin] that are decreased in celiacs is very attractive,” researcher Elena Verdu, associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, told

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, which is found in food containing wheat, rye or barley. For people suffering from celiac disease, gluten peptides induce inflammation in the intestinal lining, leading to symptoms including destruction of the intestinal lining, abdominal pain, changes in bowel habits, malnutrition and anemia.

For their study, researchers used animal models and also studied a small cohort of 20 celiac-diagnosed and control participants. The celiac group was measured to have lower levels of the molecule elafin both before and after a year of a gluten-free diet.

“We reasoned there could be many ways how elafin, or lack of it, could be deleterious to celiac patients and that replenishing this molecule could be protective,” Verdu said.

Additionally, researchers found that the enzyme tissue transglutaminase 2 further increases the inflammatory response of gluten in celiac patients.

“In celiacs, [transglutaminase 2] plays an important role because this enzyme can act on those gluten peptides and modify them and make them more avid to interact with immune cells,” Verdu said. “It’s actually increasing the inflammation in celiacs because of this effect.”

The researchers found that elafin interacted with the enzyme’s capability to interact with gluten, reducing the immune response in mice.

While this research is still in early discovery phases, Verdu said elafin could someday be used as a supplement for patients with celiac disease, to help them manage their disease more easily.

“Perhaps we could strengthen the intestinal lining to prevent [damage] or accelerate healing and make this patient feel better and have a little bit less of the idea that they’re being constantly contaminated by hidden sources of gluten and [therefore] improve their lifestyle,” Verdu said. “It’s not that they’re going to go out and eat gluten, but at least they can heal faster or have less symptoms, despite having a gluten-free diet.”