Parallels between pathogens and gluten peptides in celiac sprue

PLoS Pathog. 2008 Feb;4(2):e34. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0040034.


Pathogens are exogenous agents capable of causing disease in susceptible organisms. In celiac sprue, a disease triggered by partially hydrolyzed gluten peptides in the small intestine, the offending immunotoxins cannot replicate, but otherwise have many hallmarks of classical pathogens. First, dietary gluten and its peptide metabolites are ubiquitous components of the modern diet, yet only a small, genetically susceptible fraction of the human population contracts celiac sprue. Second, immunotoxic gluten peptides have certain unusual structural features that allow them to survive the harsh proteolytic conditions of the gastrointestinal tract and thereby interact extensively with the mucosal lining of the small intestine. Third, they invade across epithelial barriers intact to access the underlying gut-associated lymphoid tissue. Fourth, they possess recognition sequences for selective modification by an endogenous enzyme, transglutaminase 2, allowing for in situ activation to a more immunotoxic form via host subversion. Fifth, they precipitate a T cell-mediated immune reaction comprising both innate and adaptive responses that causes chronic inflammation of the small intestine. Sixth, complete elimination of immunotoxic gluten peptides from the celiac diet results in remission, whereas reintroduction of gluten in the diet causes relapse. Therefore, in analogy with antibiotics, orally administered proteases that reduce the host's exposure to the immunotoxin by accelerating gluten peptide destruction have considerable therapeutic potential. Last but not least, notwithstanding the power of in vitro methods to reconstitute the essence of the immune response to gluten in a celiac patient, animal models for the disease, while elusive, are likely to yield fundamentally new systems-level insights.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Celiac Disease / genetics
  • Celiac Disease / immunology*
  • Celiac Disease / therapy
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Glutens / immunology*
  • Glutens / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate* / physiology
  • Immunotoxins / immunology*
  • Immunotoxins / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa / immunology
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestine, Small / immunology
  • Intestine, Small / metabolism
  • Lymphoid Tissue / immunology
  • Lymphoid Tissue / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Peptides / adverse effects
  • Peptides / immunology
  • Peptides / metabolism


  • Immunotoxins
  • Peptides
  • Glutens

Associated data

  • GENBANK/AAS64331
  • GENBANK/ABI21861
  • GENBANK/ABQ14770
  • GENBANK/CAB76955
  • GENBANK/CAB76964
  • GENBANK/CAC94871