Celiac Disease: Vaccine to Protect Against Gluten Being Developed by Scientists

Researchers are working on a vaccine to prevent celiac disease, a condition that triggers an immune response toward gluten. Getty Images

A vaccine against celiac disease, which causes the body to attack itself when a person eats gluten, is one step closer to being rolled out. Researchers hope a new experimental treatment for celiac disease called Nexvax2 could allow patients with the serious immune disorder to eat a normal diet—including pasta and bread.

Currently, quitting gluten is the only way to treat the condition and to prevent serious health complications. Celiac disease is not an intolerance or allergy to gluten but an autoimmune disorder that causes the small intestine to turn on itself when it encounters gluten (a protein present in foods like wheat, rye and barley). This harms the tiny villi in the digestive tract and stops a celiac from absorbing nutrients from their food.

"Even patients who strictly adhere to [a gluten-free diet] can suffer short and long-term adverse effects from gluten exposure," Australian researchers at The Royal Melbourne Hospital warned in a statement.

Related: Celiac disease remains a scientific mystery. Here's what doctors know about the cause

The hereditary condition affects an estimated one in 100 people worldwide, with more than 2 million Americans believed to be undiagnosed according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

In Phase I trials, the vaccine, Nexvax2, was found to be safe and tolerable in the doses that the average patient would take. It has now entered Phase II trials, during which researchers investigate whether Nexvax2 can protect patients against the negative effects of gluten entering a celiac's digestive system.

An international team of researchers hope to recruit around 150 participants in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand for the trial. To be eligible, The Royal Melbourne Hospital said, persons must be between 18 and 70 years old, be proven to have celiac disease and have followed a gluten-free diet for at least 12 months.

Participants will be asked to eat a moderate amount of gluten, inject themselves with the experimental drug twice a week, as well as complete online questionnaires. Researchers will collect blood samples and blood pressure and pulse results from patients. Some participants will also undergo gastroscopy and biopsy procedures.

Dr Jason Tye-Din, a gastroenterologist and head of celiac research at The Royal Melbourne Hospital told The Sydney Morning Herald: "The vaccine is designed to target the 90 percent of celiac disease patients with the HLA-DQ2 genetic form of disease. A successful therapy that can restore normal gluten tolerance would revolutionize celiac disease management."