Coeliac disease: a unique model for investigating broken tolerance in autoimmunity

Clin Transl Immunology. 2016 Nov 2;5(11):e112. doi: 10.1038/cti.2016.58. eCollection 2016 Nov.


Coeliac disease, a prevalent immune-mediated enteropathy driven by dietary gluten, provides an exceptional human model to dissect the genetic, environmental and immunologic factors operating in autoimmunity. Despite the causative antigen being an exogenous food protein, coeliac disease has many features in common with autoimmune disease including a strong HLA class II association and the presence of pathogenic CD4+ T cells and autoantibodies. CD8+ intraepithelial lymphocytes specifically target and destroy intestinal epithelium in response to stress signals and not a specific antigen. A unique feature of coeliac disease is the ability to remove gluten to induce disease remission and reintroduce it to trigger a memory response. This provides an unparalleled opportunity to study disease-relevant CD4+ T cells that have been expanded in vivo. As a result, the causative peptides have been characterised at a level unprecedented for any autoimmune disease. Despite the complexity of the gluten proteome, resistance to gastrointestinal proteolysis and susceptibility to post-translational modification by transglutaminase help shape a restricted repertoire of immunogenic gluten peptides that have high affinity for disease-associated HLA. The critical steps in coeliac disease pathogenesis have been broadly elucidated and provide the basis for experimental therapies in pre-clinical or clinical development. However, little is known about how and why tolerance to gluten sometimes breaks or fails to develop. Understanding the interactions between genes, the environment, gluten immunity and the microbiome may provide novel approaches for the prevention and treatment of disease.

Publication types

  • Review