A new study has found that gluten, which is known to damage the small intestines of people suffering from celiac disease, could be metabolized by bacteria when gut enzymes fail to digest it.

In the study published online in the journal Gastroenterology, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found that mice with the presence of bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Psa) isolated from celiac patients in their guts metabolized gluten — a protein found in grains like wheat, rye and barley — differently from mice that had been treated with Lactobacillus.

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder where the patient is unable to digest the gluten completely, leading to an immune response where antibodies attack internal organs such as the small intestine. This damages the villi that allow for nutrient absorption in the small intestine, causing the patient’s body to lose out on nutrients like iron, folate, calcium, vitamin D, protein, fat and other food compounds that are essential.

The California-based Celiac Disease Foundation has estimated that the disease affects 1 in 100 people worldwide while in the United States almost 2.5 million people still haven’t been diagnosed, exposing them to the risk of long-term health complications.

On studying the chemistry of gluten metabolism by Psa and Lactobacillus, the researchers found that Lactobacillus was able to detoxify gluten while Psa produced gluten sequences that showed similarities to the inflammation in celiac patients.

“So the type of bacteria that we have in our gut contributes to the digestion of gluten, and the way this digestion is performed could increase or decrease the chances of developing celiac disease in a person with genetic risk,” said the senior author of the study, Dr. Elena Verdu, an associate professor at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, in a press release.

“Celiac disease is caused by gluten in genetically predisposed people, but bacteria in our gut could tip the balance in some people between developing the disease or staying healthy,” she explained.

Currently there is no cure for the disease with the only available treatment being a strict, gluten-free diet for life. Verdu, however, said, “We may be closer to understanding the way gut bacteria and opportunistic pathogens such as Psa could affect celiac disease risk. This will help us develop strategies to prevent these disorders, but more research is needed.”