Objectives: The ability of the gliadin fraction of wheat gluten to exacerbate coeliac disease is well documented. We investigated the possible toxicity of high molecular weight glutenin subunits (HMW-GS) in coeliac disease in vitro using gluten-sensitive T cells, and in vivo with challenge studies in patient volunteers.
Methods: A mixture of four HMW-GS was chemically separated from wheat flour and checked for purity by HPLC, SDS-PAGE and ELISA. T-cell lines, grown up from small intestinal biopsies from coeliac patients (n=17), were tested for their reactivity to HMW-GS. Adults with coeliac disease and who were on a gluten-free diet (n=3) underwent in-vivo challenges with HMW-GS. Duodenal biopsies, taken prior to the challenge and at intervals up to 6 h afterwards, were assessed for morphology, intra-epithelial lymphocyte count, and interleukin 15 (IL-15) expression, by immunohistochemistry.
Results: T-cell lines from 11 of 17 patients were stimulated by HMW-GS. There was a significant change in small intestinal morphology 4 h after commencing infusions with HMW-GS in all three subjects. For example villus height to crypt depth ratios were reduced in the three patients from 3.0+/-0.5 to 1.29+/-0.2, 2.53+/-0.7 to 0.81+/-0.6 and 3.0+/-0.7 to 1.85+/-0.3, P<0.0001 in all cases. There was increased expression of IL-15 in the small intestine from 2 h after the HMW-GS challenges.
Conclusion: Mixed HMW-GS stimulate T-cell lines from some coeliac patients and exacerbate coeliac disease in vivo, inducing expression, within 2 h, of IL-15. This suggests an innate immune response to these proteins.