This April, Bana Jabri, Professor in the Department of Medicine and Pediatrics and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Medicine, and her colleagues announced a fundamental breakthrough in a paper published in Science: Infection with reovirus, a common but otherwise harmless virus, can trigger the immune system response to gluten that leads to celiac disease.
The study, done in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, suggests that infection with a reovirus could be a key initiating event for developing celiac. In the United States, babies are usually given their first solid foods — often containing gluten — and weaned from breastfeeding around six months of age. Children with immature immune systems are more susceptible to viral infections at this stage, and for those genetically predisposed to celiac disease, the combination of an intestinal reovirus infection with the first exposure to gluten could create the right conditions for developing celiac.
The research also implicates viruses in the development of other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, and raises the possibility that vaccines could one day be used to prevent these diseases. I’m excited to see what further discoveries Bana and her team will make as they pursue this promising line of research.