While we know gluten triggers the symptoms of celiac disease, we don’t yet understand what causes someone with the celiac genes to go from tolerating gluten to manifesting full-blown celiac disease. A common hypothesis is that it has something to do with a change in the microbiome of our intestinal tract. However, recent research may lead us to another hypothesis involving goblet cells, which may work separately or in conjunction with the microbiome hypothesis.
In the March 2012 issue of the research journal Nature, the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reported their findings of potential “chaperone” cells in the lining of the intestine. These goblet cells were previously understood to simply perform the role of secreting mucus into the intestine. You can view the abstract of this study here or examine some of the figures from the study here.
Goblet cells are glandular epithelial cells along the wall of your digestive tract. They secrete mucins into your digestive tract. Mucins are the main component of mucus.
However, researchers now believe these goblet cells also guide antigens to dendritic cells, which help you tolerate those antigens. Dendritic cells are important for communication between the adaptive immune system and the innate immune system; they process and present antigens to the T cells of the immune system.
Some researchers now hypothesize that many forms of inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, may result from these goblet cells failing to perform their complete function in an accurate and consistent manner. In other words, they hypothesize that in some people, goblet cells don’t properly deliver antigens to dendritic cells to prepare those cells for properly presenting them to the immune system.
What I find interesting is that most medications and therapies being researched and developed to “cure” celiac disease (or at least make it possible for celiacs to tolerate gluten) began development long before this research was conducted and reported.
So this research may have thrown a bit of a curve ball at the companies currently developing medications to treat celiac disease… or it may have helped them better target their solutions. Within the next few years, I guess we’ll find out.
Either way, I always find it promising when we discover something completely new and different about the way our intestinal tract works. It moves us a step closer towards a more complete picture of what is happening and why down in those dark, squishy places.