FeaturesAug/Sep 2015 Issue

Research Roundup: Asthma-Celiac Link, Worm Therapy, & More!

The latest medical news for people with allergies and food sensitivities

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All in the Family

It’s well known that celiac disease runs in families but the exact rate of its occurrence varies widely among studies. Research recently homed in on the frequency of celiac disease in first-degree relatives. In this new study, reported at Digestive Diseases Week in May, researchers synthesized data from nearly 50 studies, reporting an average celiac prevalence of 8 percent among immediate family members.

If you’re the sister or daughter of an individual with celiac, your risk of having the disease is highest at 1 in 6 (17 percent). If you’re the brother or the son, your risk is 1 in 8 or 1 in 10, respectively. As the parent of a celiac child, your risk is 1 in 22.

Asthma-Celiac Link

Italian researchers say children with asthma have a small increased risk of developing celiac disease. According to their study, the increased celiac risk can’t be explained by antibiotic use during the first year of life, which may affect the developing gut biome and has been previously linked to both asthma and celiac disease. Researchers also don’t think the increased celiac risk can be explained by extra medical surveillance in asthmatic children. Instead they suspect shared genetic factors or vitamin D deficiency could play a role. Vitamin D deficiency is common in both disorders and may influence immune function. The new study was published in April 2015 in the European Respiratory Journal.

Worm Therapy

A type of intestinal worm called the helminth is back in the news. These gut dwellers first piqued our interest after research showed they could tamp down reactions in conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease. Now Duke University researchers say the worms appear to enhance immune function. When researchers “loaded” lab rats with the helminths and housed them with rats plucked off the streets (think: extra germ sharing), the rats with helminths had healthier immune systems than traditional lab rats. They reacted better to vaccination, had better T-cell responses and had higher levels of antibodies shown to be important in fighting cancer.

Findings add to the growing body of evidence that certain worms and germs boost immune function—and hint that we may need to artificially add them back to curb rising rates of allergy and autoimmune diseases.

Protein Linked to Gluten Sensitivity

Canadian researchers have tied gluten consumption in people without celiac disease to higher levels of alpha2-macroglobulin, a protein involved in inflammation. In the study, researchers looked at levels of more than 50 different proteins in the blood of gluten-sensitive folks. Alpha2 was the only hit. The increased levels were only detected in study participants who consumed the most gluten—the equivalent of five slices of bread or two full plates of pasta per day.

This finding is the latest in an effort to understand why some people who don’t have celiac disease feel worse when they eat gluten. If researchers can confirm that gluten is causing the increase in alpha2—for now, it’s just a link, not a proven cause—the next step would be to determine whether changes in the protein levels are associated with symptoms. If so, it could potentially be a biomarker for gluten sensitivity. The study was published April 2015 in the Journal of Nutrition.

Accidental Peanut Exposure

Children with peanut allergy are most at risk for accidental exposure to peanut at home, according to a large study from Canada. Thirty-seven percent of exposures over a one-year period occurred at home. Other people’s homes accounted for 14 percent, while another 9 percent occurred at restaurants. Schools and daycares, including those that allow peanuts, accounted for less than 5 percent of exposures. Researchers think heightened awareness of peanut allergy may explain why there was little difference in accidental exposures between schools with and without peanuts (3 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively). Results were published in April 2015 in Clinical and Translational Allergy.

Probiotics for Seasonal Allergies

Research on the potential benefits of probiotics continues to mount. In the latest study, researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center examined data from 23 already completed studies on the use of probiotics for seasonal allergies. All but six of the studies showed a significant clinical benefit in allergy symptoms or quality of life from probiotics compared to the placebo (sugar pill). The studies included a wide range of probiotic strains, doses and formulations, so researchers can’t make specific recommendations about their use for seasonal allergies just yet. More studies are needed. Findings were published in April 2015 in the International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology.

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Pregnancy Complications

If you’ve been following the studies on celiac disease and reproductive health, you may be scratching your head. Celiac women are more likely to suffer miscarriages and deliver babies ahead of schedule, a new U.S. study shows. Yet late last year, two other studies showed just the opposite. The mixed findings may result, at least in part, from different types of studies (i.e., patient surveys versus medical record reviews). This latest study was an online survey of 329 American women with celiac disease and 641 without it. Most of the miscarriages and early deliveries occurred before starting the gluten-free diet, suggesting treating celiac disease improves reproductive health. Despite the mixed findings from different studies, researchers from the new study say women experiencing recurrent pregnancy complications should be screened for celiac disease. Results were published in April 2015 in the Annals of Gastroenterology.

Nerve Damage in Celiac Disease

New research from Sweden shows having celiac disease more than doubles the risk of developing neuropathy, a condition characterized by numbness, tingling, pain or weakness in the hands and feet. However, the risk of celiac individuals developing neuropathy is still quite low (less than 1 percent). Whether strict adherence to the gluten-free diet helps prevent the onset of neuropathy wasn’t directly addressed in this study and remains unclear. The risk of developing neuropathy was highest in the first year after a celiac diagnosis, when inflammation may be present and the gluten-free diet isn’t yet mastered. Some risk was still there more than five years later. Findings were published in May 2015 in JAMA Neurology.

Health editor Christine Boyd lives in Baltimore. 

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