Researchers in Australia and the UK have identified three specific protein fragments that they believe are the root cause for celiac disease – an ailment that damages the walls of the small intestine.

In separate studies, they have identified the components of the protein that leads people with celiac disease to develop a toxic allergy to gluten – a type of protein found in most grains, cereals and breads. The disease damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of food.

The disease, which is currently treated through a gluten-free diet, can now be treated through vaccination as a result of the two researches that managed to answer the actual causes of the allergy to gluten.

"These three components account for the majority of the immune response to gluten that is observed in people with celiac disease," says Dr. Bob Anderson, head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's celiac disease research laboratory in Victoria, Australia.

Professor Anderson started the study nine years ago with the help of more than 200 celiac disease patients and also involved researchers in Australia and the UK later on.

The patients, who were recruited through the Celiac Society of Victoria and the Celiac Clinic at John Radcliffe Hospital, UK, were asked to eat bread, rye muffins or boiled barley. After six days, their blood samples were taken and analysed against 2,700 different gluten fragments to measure the strength of the patients' immune responses to them.

The researchers found that 90 fragments were causing some level of immune reaction. Among them three gluten fragments (peptides) were revealed as being particularly toxic.

Identification of these protein bits could pave way to a new generation of diagnostics, treatments, prevention strategies and food tests for the millions of people worldwide with celiac disease.

It was around 60 years ago that gluten was discovered to be the environmental cause of celiac disease. In the years since, the Holy Grail in celiac disease research has been to identify the toxic peptide components of gluten; and that's what we've done, says Dr. Anderson.

The research was carried out as a collaborative effort between Dr. Jason Tye-Din, Dr. James Dromey, Dr. Stuart Mannering, Dr. Jessica Stewart and Dr. Tim Beissbarth from the institute as well as Professor Jamie Rossjohn at Monash University and Professor Jim McCluskey at the University of Melbourne.

The results of the two researches were published in the July 21 edition of the international journal Science Translational Medicine. The discovery has since been used by Melbourne-based biotech company, Nexpep Pty Ltd, to develop a peptide-based immunotherapy.