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YOUR HEALTH: Searching for a vaccine for Celiac disease

One in every 133 Americans have Celiac disease.

CHICAGO, Illinois – Some people seek out gluten-free foods so they can be healthier.

But others can't get any taste of it or they'll get sick.

One in 133 Americans have Celiac disease, although experts say many other people haven't been diagnosed.

People with Celiac disease have a reaction to gluten, which is present in anything made with wheat, rye, or barley.

For the Simon family, mealtime takes planning.  10-year old Hannah was diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago.

"Hannah was not well really from birth on," recalled her mother, Karen Simon.

Since her diagnosis, she avoids food with gluten.

If she doesn't...

"I throw up. A lot," Hannah said.  "My stomach hurts, a lot."

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," explained Dr. Bana Jabri, director of research at the University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Research 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 says 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.

"There's substitutes for most of the things that you eat that have gluten in them," Hannah explained.

Hannah approaches Celiac with a sense of humor: dressing for Halloween as a gluten-free doughnut.

It's as close to gluten as she wants to get.

GLUTEN-FREE DIET:  Naturally gluten-free food groups include fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, beans, legumes, nuts, and dairy.  Pure wheat and barley grass are gluten-free, but there is gluten within the seeds so if not harvested correctly, there is risk of gluten contamination.  There are many naturally gluten-free grains that can be enjoyed, including but not limited to rice, corn, soy, potato, beans, quinoa, millet, buckwheat groats or kasha, amaranth, teff, flax, chia, yucca, and nut flours.  Research shows some naturally gluten-free grains may contain gluten from cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains due to harvesting and processing.  As a rule, traditional wheat products such as breads, pastas, crackers and other baked goods are not gluten-free, but there may be substitutes to these products that use gluten-free alternatives.

Babies are usually given their first solid foods at about six months, often containing gluten.

Jabri says children are more susceptible to viral infections at this age, and those who have the Celiac gene could be at higher risk at that point for developing Celiac disease.

If you want more information about the University of Chicago research, contact Matt Wood at matthew.wood@uchospitals.edu.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.