Can Celiac Disease be cured with stem cells?

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?

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Lucy is the mother of a coeliac, and has been managing a gluten free diet for her daughter for 20 years - though, to be fair, she does do most of it herself now...

3 thoughts on “Can Celiac Disease be cured with stem cells?”

  1. I have to tell you, when it comes to stem cells I really wish I lived in Europe. I never think of myself, although I have two autoimmune disorders (celiac and sjogrens). My husband has MS, and I would love to get him a stem cell transplant as soon as they are proven effective, before the damage becomes too great.

    Currently they are on trial here in the US, only a dozen patients with Autoimmune disease including MS. It will be years before it is a treatment available to us, paid for by insurance.


  2. Would I have the treatment? yes once it was properly tested etc which will take a good few years to know it works long term. However it would have to be very well researched first I cope well enough I don’t have any wish to be a test subject where it could have side effects.

    To me something like this is fairly easy to say yes to where as I can see why some deaf people would not get an implant and I don’t think I’d say yes if they told me tomorrow they can cure my dyslexia. I think the difference is for me not eating gluten is just that not eating something because it makes me ill being deaf or dyslexic is much more than that both socially and mentally.

  3. Laney – you guys are really going through it, aren’t you? I guess you’re watching the stem cell trials very carefully. Did you see the articles about the researchers who’ve grown stem cells from skin?

    Esther – I agree that it will take more time to know if this has worked long term. The research article indicates that the family don’t want to be followed up with more biopsies at the moment, which I can understand since she’s been so unwell. Perhaps in the future they can check back with her to see how it goes.

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