April 2014 – Researchers at McMaster University in Canada have discovered that a protein molecule found naturally in the human body could help in managing celiac disease.
Known as elafin, the protein opens an intriguing new direction for a possible therapy for the autoimmune condition.
“Elafin replacement could be used to help accelerate mucosal healing in celiac patients who are already following a gluten-free diet, or as a supplement to reduce the risk of symptoms associated with accidental contamination with gluten,” said Dr. Elena Verdú, study author and associate professor of gastroenterology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Elafin is found in the intestines and respiratory tracts of healthy individuals, and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Until now, however, it had never been associated with celiac disease.
The study found that elafin levels were reduced in people with celiac disease, but its levels would replenish on a gluten-free diet. Then, in experiments with mice sensitized to gluten, the scientists found that administering elafin prevented the intestinal damage that gluten would have typically caused.
Using human tissue, it was also found that when elafin interacted with a key player in celiac disease, the enzyme tissue transglutaminase 2, it reduced the ability of gluten to set off symptoms.
However, any therapy using elafin won’t be available any time soon.
“This research is at a discovery level, meaning that there is a lot to be done before in can be tested in humans,” said Verdú. In addition, the study’s animal tests used a genetically modified bacteria to deliver elafin to the intestines. While the bacteria used has been shown to be safe, there are still concerns over the use of GMOs in humans, so an alternate method of delivery may also need to be developed.