Gluten-free solution? What to know about an experimental treatment that might allow people with celiac disease to eat gluten

People who suffer from celiac disease must follow a strict, gluten-free diet, but a new treatment that is currently being tested might change if clinical trials work and it is approved.

The treatment, called Nexvax2, can change the immune response of people to gluten, so that it no longer causes a harmful inflammatory response in the body.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine when gluten is taken.

Nexvax2 hopes to help people with specific immune-recognition genes that make up about 90 percent of the celiac patients, says ImmusanT, Inc., the Massachusetts-based company behind the vaccine.

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Nexvax2 is currently being tested in a Phase 2 clinical study in Australia with patients from the United States.

A Phase 2 phase usually takes about two years. Nexvax2 should then be tested in a Phase 3 clinical study that should demonstrate that treatment is at least as safe and effective as existing treatment options.

If successful in the Phase 3 study, it should request FDA approval to become available to consumers in the United States. The costs of the treatment are unknown.

If approved, Nexvax2 can give hope to the nearly 1 percent of Americans who have celiac disease and currently have no treatment option other than following a strict gluten-free diet.

PHOTO: gluten-free appears on food packaging. Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images
"Gluten-free" appears on the food packaging.

"Further research and results are expected, but if the therapy does work, this has the potential to enable patients to return to a normal diet and better health," said Dr Dean Railey, a gastroenterologist in Sunrise. , Florida, which is not connected with Nexvax2. "It's really hard to go gluten-free, you have to read every label and know exactly what you eat in restaurants."

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Here are five questions about celiac disease answered by Dr. Johanna Kreafle, an emergency room doctor at Carolina Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

1. What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease that causes the body to build up an immune response to gluten, a combination of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. This reaction causes damage to the small intestine and when this happens, nutrients can not be properly adsorbed in the body.

2. Do all people with "gluten intolerance" have celiac disease?

No. Some people have non-celiac wheat sensitivity, which has similar symptoms as celiac disease, but which do not test positive for celiac disease. And it has not been confirmed that gluten is the culprit that causes the immune response in these people – it can be another protein or antigen.

3. What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

There are many symptoms, but the most common are abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headache, bone or joint pain and chronic fatigue.

4. How are people diagnosed with celiac disease?

Two steps: screening and diagnosis. You should always consult a doctor to make a correct diagnosis.

screening: Blood tests to screen antibodies against celiac disease. If the blood tests indicate celiac disease, your doctor will recommend a biopsy of your small intestine to confirm the diagnosis.

Diagnosis: Biopsy of your small intestine during an endoscopy looks for damage to your small intestine in accordance with celiac disease.

5. What treatments are available for celiac disease?

Currently, the only treatment available for celiac disease is lifelong compliance with a strict gluten-free diet. This means avoiding food with wheat, barley and rye.

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