Newly Discovered Blood Marker Could Allow Celiac Blood Test

Researchers at a biotech company discovered that a molecule becomes elevated within hours of gluten consumption.

Diagnosing celiac disease can be a tricky business. Many people who suspect they have the condition may already be refraining from eating gluten at the time of their diagnosis, which makes detecting the inflammation caused by gluten exposure much harder. Under current guidelines, they’re asked to eat gluten regularly for several weeks — with all the unpleasant symptoms that occur as a result, such as bloating, diarrhea, and vomiting — before having a biopsy of their small intestine to inspect for damage.

But the days of this drawn-out, often painful, invasive diagnostic procedure may be numbered, thanks to a new discovery by researchers at a biotech company. It could lead to a blood test that requires only one meal containing gluten to accurately diagnose celiac disease.

In an article published in the journal Scientific Advances, researchers at Massachusetts-based ImmusanT Inc. describe how they discovered a molecule in the blood — known as interleukin-2 (IL-2) — that becomes elevated within hours of gluten exposure in people with celiac disease.

Like many scientific discoveries, this one was something of an accident, with the researchers noticing elevated levels of IL-2 while testing a potential celiac disease treatment involving gluten peptide injections. They followed up with studies of actual people with celiac disease and found the same elevated levels of IL-2 within as little as 2 hours after consuming 3 to 5.7 grams of gluten — about a quarter to half of the average daily gluten intake in the United States.

The researchers write that their discovery of elevated IL-2 “provides definitive evidence of rapid immune activation within 2 hours after administering gluten peptides in almost all” people with celiac disease. They also note that higher levels of IL-2 were associated with an increase in nausea and vomiting in study participants, which may explain how gluten exposure has this effect on some people with celiac disease.

Work is already underway to develop a blood test for IL-2 that can be used in a protocol to diagnose celiac disease. Under such a protocol, someone might get a test for IL-2, eat a meal containing gluten, and then get another IL-2 test a few hours later. Exactly how elevated IL-2 would need to be to diagnose celiac disease remains to be determined.

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