Scientists are pursuing some intriguing possibilities. One is thatbreast-feeding may protect against the disease. Another is that we have neglected the teeming ecosystem of microbes in the gut — bacteria that may determine whether the immune system treats gluten as food or as a deadly invader.
Celiac disease is generally considered an autoimmune disorder. The name celiac derives from the Greek word for “hollow,” as in bowels. Gluten proteins in wheat, barley and rye prompt the body to turn on itself and attack the small intestine. Complications range from diarrhea andanemia to osteoporosis and, in extreme cases, lymphoma. Some important exceptions notwithstanding, the prevalence of celiac disease is estimated to range between 0.6 and 1 percent of the world’s population.
Nearly everyone with celiac disease has one of two versions of a cellular receptor called the human leukocyte antigen, or H.L.A. These receptors, the thinking goes, naturally increase carriers’ immune response to gluten.
This detailed understanding makes celiac disease unique among autoimmune disorders. Two factors — one a protein, another genetic — are clearly defined; and in most cases, eliminating gluten from the patient’s diet turns off the disease.
Yet the more scientists study celiac disease, the more some crucial component appears in need of identification. Roughly 30 percent of people with European ancestry carry predisposing genes, for example. Yet more than 95 percent of the carriers tolerate gluten just fine. So while these genes (plus gluten) are necessary to produce the disease, they’re evidently insufficient to cause it.