New research points to a molecule that may help alleviate symptoms of gluten intolerance and celiac disease, illuminating a possible drug target for the chronic autoimmune condition that currently affects millions of Americans.

Dr. Elena Verdu, a researcher at McMaster University and co-author of the new study, said that the findings show how sufferers may achieve better protection in a world where wheat, rye, barley, and other sources of gluten are difficult to avoid. "People who have to strictly avoid gluten for life often find this very difficult due to these hidden sources,” she explained in a press release. "There is a great need for a therapy that will protect patients with celiac disease from these accidental contaminations."

When people with celiac disease eat foods with gluten, their digestive enzymes cannot break down the substance properly. This triggers an immune response that leads to destruction of the intestinal lining, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and other digestive issues. Previous research has shown that the enzyme transglutaminase 2 exacerbates this response.

Recent studies have also shown that people with celiac disease express very low levels of a molecule called elafin, which has been tied to processes regulating gut inflammation. Verdu and colleagues theorized that this deficiency may contribute to the digestive responses associated with celiac disease and other types of gluten intolerance. To investigate, they artificially increased levels of the molecule in mouse models of the condition.

The findings, which are published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, show elafin can significantly reduce symptoms by protecting the intestinal wall in the upper gut. "This would add flexibility to a restrictive lifelong diet, and increase patients' quality of life and potentially accelerate the healing of celiac lesions,” Verdu explained.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, celiac disease currently affects about one percent of the U.S. population — however, more than 80 percent may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with some other condition. No pharmaceutical treatment is currently available.