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Is it Time to Revise the Criteria Used to Diagnose Celiac Disease?
Celiac.com 06/03/2008 - Among the main things doctors look for when they’re trying to make a classic diagnosis of celiac disease are small intestinal mucosal membrane villous atrophy and inflammation. However, the latest research indicates that these criteria are possibly too narrow, leading to a lack of diagnosis and treatment of people with celiac disease. If this turn out to be the case, then far more people than previously imagined may suffer from celiac disease and not even know it.
In an effort to find out if present current diagnostic criteria are in fact too narrow, Finnish researchers led by Markku Maki, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Tampere, Celiac Disease Study Group, Tampere, Finland, evaluated 145 patients who were presumed to have celiac disease. Just under half (71) of the patients showed positive endomysial antibodies, and out of these only 48 patients met the textbook definition for celiac disease.
The research team then split the 23 patients left into two groups. They put the first group on a gluten-free diet for one year, and the second group on a on a standard gluten-inclusive diet for one year. At the end of the year, the doctors conducted follow-up biopsies on all 23 patients. The doctors discovered that the patients who had been on the gluten-free diet did in fact have celiac disease (even though they didn't have any obvious symptoms), and any symptoms that they did have disappeared—they lost their endomysial antibodies and any inflammation that was detected in their intestinal mucosa.
On the other hand, the patients in the second group whose diets included gluten showed no such positive changes, and their symptoms continued. The still showed positive endomysial antibodies, along with inflammation of intestinal mucous membrane, and gluten-induced lesions in the small intestine.
The study director said that each of the patients on the gluten-free diet had chosen to remain gluten-free thereafter, and that the patients on the gluten-inclusive diet had chosen to eliminate gluten from their diets and over time also became symptom-free—endomysial antibody-free and showed signs of healing of the mucous membrane.
Other studies have shown that over time untreated patients who show positive endomysial antibodies may develop the gut injury that is currently required as part of the criteria for diagnosing celiac disease. A greater understanding of the negative effects of untreated or undiagnosed celiac disease, coupled with better testing methods have led to a new strategy that allow doctors to detect celiac disease as early as possible—before any serious damage can occur—this new strategy is likely to be resoundingly welcome among celiac disease sufferers.
Hopefully the results of this study and others like it will lead to a new awareness among doctors, and will ultimately lead to better methods for diagnosing celiac disease at an earlier stage. This could ultimately mean less suffering and long term physical damage for many people.
Presented at 2009 Digestive Disease Week in San Diego, CA by Dr. Kurppa, a member of Dr. Maki’s research team, on Tuesday, May 20 at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time in room 10 (San Diego Convention Center).
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Jefferson Adams is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. His poems, essays and photographs have appeared in Antioch Review, Blue Mesa Review, CALIBAN, Hayden's Ferry Review, Huffington Post, the Mississippi Review, and Slate among others.
He is a member of both the National Writers Union, the International Federation of Journalists, and covers San Francisco Health News for Examiner.com.View all articles by Jefferson Adams