Whole blood tests are often used to diagnose infectious diseases, but up until now, they haven’t been used to identify autoimmune disorders like Celiac disease (CD).
Currently, the “gold-standard” for diagnosing gluten allergies is finding characteristic damage to the small intestine, says Jason Tye-Din, M.D., head of Celiac Research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Unfortunately, that process can be very invasive and require weeks of consuming gluten, which is after all the root of the problem. Also, it's an option only after intestinal damage occurs.
But Tye-Din and his team may have found an alternative, and one that could not only diagnose CD, but catch it before the damage has been done. And the entire process takes four days or less, with test results in about 24 hours.
The researchers say the test can determine CD with 85 to 94 percent specificity and exclude those who don’t have it with 100 percent specificity. Tye-Din and his team published their study results in Clinical & Experimental Immunology.
“We compared a newer, more simple approach using whole blood...to a more traditional and more technically demanding approach called ELISpot and showed they performed similarly,” he said.
Though worldwide only one in a hundred people has CD, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, researchers from Rochester, Minn. found earlier this year that gluten allergies are on the rise in North America.
Developing a Better Celiac Test
One of the problems with the existing CD test is that it requires patients to re-adopt a gluten-containing diet for four to six weeks or longer.
“This is difficult for most patients, as the reason they stopped gluten in the first place is it makes them sick, so most people cannot tolerate a prolonged challenge with gluten,” Tye-Din said.
To develop a better testing method, researchers recruited 27 subjects with CD and 17 without. They underwent three days of a gluten-rich diet, and then took a whole blood test. Within 24 hours, researchers could tell with near 100 percent accuracy which patients had the disease.
“There is a real need for a practical test which can accurately detect Celiac disease in this situation,” Tye-Din said.
Celiac Disease or a Gluten Intolerance?
CD is an autoimmune disorder in which the small intestine is sensitive to gluten, which is found in foods made with wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten is a protein found in foods typically considered starches or carbohydrates—think bread, pasta, and cookies.
For those suffering from CD, when gluten-rich food enters the small intestine from the stomach, the immune system attacks it. The small intestine becomes inflamed and is less able to do its job—absorbing nutrients. In addition to chronic discomfort, this gut misregulation can lead to malnutrition.
CD involves a severe immune system reaction to gluten, while gluten intolerance involves a somewhat milder and less damaging allergic reaction. The only way to know for sure what your symptoms mean is to visit your doctor and be tested.