As little as 50 milligrams of gluten-the amount found in 1/100 of a slice of bread-can cause damage to people with celiac disease. For the one in 133 Canadians suffering from the condition, a toxic reaction to gluten affects the small intestine, permanently impeding nutrient absorption and possibly triggering diseases such as lymphoma and osteoporosis. What’s more, there’s no cure. The only relief from symptoms comes from a 100 percent gluten-free diet, which means no barley, rye or wheat-ever.
Now an American biotech company is developing a vaccine for the disease-a world first-based on research by Australian scientists.
“Nexvax2 induces tolerance to gluten,” explains ImmusanT president, founder and CEO Leslie J. Williams. “By administering small, frequent doses of peptides over about two months, patients’ response to gluten will be reprogrammed.” This tolerance would be maintained by booster shots, administered once or twice a month.
It’s these peptides, or tiny proteins, that are the key to this breakthrough. Researchers isolated three specific proteins responsible for the abnormal response to gluten in celiac sufferers. By gradually introducing these specific peptides through weekly injections, the immune system learns to tolerate gluten.
The vaccine will be effective only in celiac patients with a specific genetic form of the disease known as HLA DQ2, but that accounts for about 80 percent of sufferers.
Recent testing of Nexvax2 has proven the method to be safe and well tolerated by patients. The vaccine is now entering testing to establish optimal doses, and Williams says she’s hopeful it will be available to the public by 2017.