Celiac.com 04/06/2009 - Celiac sufferers around the globe are anxiously awaiting word from Australia, as the world's first vaccine trials for the treatment of celiac disease get underway in Melbourne. In April, Bob Anderson, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical research, will begin the initial phase of the first-ever trials for a celiac vaccine that, if successful, might just mean the end of gluten-free diets for those with celiac disease.
The vaccine therapy involves repeatedly injecting solutions of gluten at increasing concentrations. The goal is to reduce and ultimately eliminate gluten sensitivity slowly, in a manner similar to common allergy desensitization treatments. The road to the development of this treatment has not been easy. Dr. Anderson is that rare combination of medical doctor (gastroenterologist) and PhD scientist who is able to develop practical treatments from bedside observations. After struggling to gain funding throughout his research career, he eventually patented his vaccine and co-founded Nexpep in an effort to develop the vaccine on his own. Because, like common dust and hay fever allergy therapies, this treatment approach may allow people with celiac disease to actually consume the gluten that produces the toxic reaction and reduce or even eliminate that reaction via vaccination. This approach will also serve as a model for a vaccine approach for other immune conditions such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Until recently, doctors thought celiac disease was rare. But according to statistics, it is twice as common as type1 diabetes or breast cancer. Celiac disease is now known to strike one per cent of Americans, but although modern blood testing has made early detection accurate and efficient, most people with celiac disease still do not know that they have it. Just 3% of sufferers have been diagnosed, leaving nearly 3 million people undiagnosed, and therefore unable to benefit form simple treatment in the form of a gluten-free diet. Long-term risks for untreated celiac disease include malnutrition, infertility, osteoporotic fractures, liver failure and various cancers. Symptoms can vary between individuals, with some experiencing no symptoms at all, even though damage to the bowel and general health still occurs whether or not symptoms are present.
Presently, long-term monitoring of dietary compliance for celiac patients is haphazard at best, and standards for gluten-free products have yet to take effect in the USA and other countries. Geoff Withers, director of pediatric gastroenterology at Brisbane's Royal Children's Hospital, points out that a gluten-free diet is "notoriously difficult. It is expensive and lifelong, and comes at a cost to the individual." Even treatment with a gluten-free disease is no panacea. People on gluten-free diets routinely suffer from a deficiency of certain vitamins, especially B vitamins. Roughly half of those following gluten-free diets have impaired intestinal healing due to compliance issues, and that means they are in danger of associated risks which include cancer.
A successful vaccine could have massive consequences for treatment of celiac disease, and might radically improve the lives of those with the condition.