Iron Celiac points us to a medical article claiming that a stem cell transplant eliminated coeliac disease in a 12 year old girl.

This kind of transplant is thought to have improved or stabilised a number of auto-immune diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease.

She had the stem cell transplant from a sibling because of leukemia, but it also apparently cured her coeliac disease. First of all, it is excellent news that the leukemia was beaten … but the side-effect bonus of elimination of coeliac disease is very interesting for us.

3 years 6 months after the transplant, her villi are still not damaged by the gluten she’s been eating since 3 months after the transplant.

That is a long gluten challenge, but not the longest I’ve heard of, so it is possible that the coeliac issues will reappear later. I have spoken to a gastro-enterologist about gluten challenges (because of the long shall we/shan’t we debate we’ve been having in this house) who said that he had had one patient in whom the damage from gluten only started to be apparent 11 years after reintroducing gluten into his diet. Plus, of course, this girl is a teenager, and it seems that some teenagers can experience a remission.

Even so, this is very interesting, and definitely deserves to be investigated further – especially now that scientists can produce stem cells from your skin, which is much easier to deal with ethically than when human embryos were involved.

But the questions that Michael raises are good ones:

  • Would you want this treatment? I might be tempted to arrange it for my daughter: diagnosed at only 1, with a lifetime of diet restrictions ahead of her, it might seem worth removing the restrictions. But perhaps not if it was for myself, and I was (even!) older than i am now …
  • Would the medical profession permit it? Would the insurance companies pay out? Here in the UK some of the cost of gluten free food is borne by the taxpayer, so the cost-effectiveness equation would be different than in the US …
  • What happens to the Celiac community and the support groups? The support group here in the UK has an interesting dilemma at the moment: they’ve now decided to switch to a subscription model rather than free access, but this raises all sorts of issues about what their focus should be, particularly now that the food labelling laws are better …
  • Do oncologists start coming to support group meetings to drum up business? Again, this might be covered here by the National Health Service, so perhaps not a directly relevant question …

But all these questions are moot until more research has been done to find out if this is a real cure, or merely a coincidental remission of symptoms.

What do you think?