Finland Study Indicates Gluten Intolerance Due to Virus


The primary cause for gluten intolerance has left scientists baffled, however the theories included both a genetic susceptibility and an environmental trigger, such as a virus or infection. A research project from the Academy of Finland’s Research Programme on Nutrition, Food, and Health has identified genes in the body that are both connected to the immune system and to the ability to breakdown gluten in the intestinal tract.

Academy Research Fellow Paivi Saavalainen has conducted much research into the hereditary risk factors for gluten intolerance. He said, “Some of the genes we have identified are linked with human immune defense against viruses. This may indicate that virus infections may be connected in some way with the onset of gluten intolerance.”


Gluten intolerance, also called celiac disease, is an autoimmune reaction in the small intestine that responds to the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Then gluten is eaten, it causes damage to the intestinal villi which can lead to nutrient malaborption and other problems. It is estimated to occur in about 1 in 133 people in the United States. Recent data has indicated that the numbers are also rising in Finland (where the study took place) and that 1 in 100 Finns have the condition. The only treatment is a life-long avoidance of any food that contains gluten.

The researchers scanned the genetic maps of more than 9400 celiac patients and found areas of immune system disturbance. They also found evidence that the genes associated with the inability to digest gluten were also linked to other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Saavalainen and his team have localized the risk genes both in individual patients and in entire families, adding further evidence that the condition is inherited. They hope to use the genetic information to develop better screening tests for gluten intolerance, as many with the early stages of the condition may be unaware that damage is already being done to the intestinal villi. Professor Markku Maki, also on the research project, says that three out of four people with gluten intolerance have not been diagnosed because their symptoms are mild or atypical. They often present first with anemia due to a deficiency in iron or folic acid.

The research is published in an upcoming issue of Nature Genetics.



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