“Will There Ever Be a Drug for Celiac Disease?”

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The Story

“Will There Ever Be a Drug for Celiac Disease?”
by Amanda B. Keener
Everyday Health, 2015

The Pitch

Hi Jordan,

I have a pitch for a story about drugs for celiac disease, which I recently learned are sorely longed-for by those suffering from the disease. The main gist is that a gluten-free diet may not be enough of a treatment for those with celiac, but there are several therapeutic approaches being explored. Here’s the pitch:
Will there ever be a drug for celiac disease?

In November, Consumer Reports released a troubling report about the high levels of arsenic found in rice and rice products (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/how-much-arsenic-is-in-your-rice/index.htm). For people with celiac disease, the news came as a heavy blow, since rice is a go-to alternative to gluten-filled wheat in many food staples, like flour and cereal. This is just the latest example of the challenges of keeping ones diet gluten-free. Less than a year ago, it was difficult to tell which “gluten-free” foods lived up to their claims; just in August, the Food and Drug Administration put an end to the charade by enforcing a requirement that the gluten content in these foods below a certain level.

Even with renewed confidence in the “gluten-free” label, sufferers of celiac disease have no guarantee they won’t accidentally consume gluten at a restaurant or at a well-meaning relatives dinner party. “No matter how careful you are, there are always times when you need to rely on other people to keep you healthy- eating at friends, relatives, at restaurants, etc,” says Kristen Sweet, who was diagnosed with celiac disease about five years ago. Despite keeping her kitchen gluten-free, she will continue to face risk of exposure, she says, unless she wants to completely sacrifice her social life.

As a trained geneticist who used to work on HIV, Kristen is painfully aware of the lack of drugs designed specifically for celiac patients.  “The issue is that when you do get ‘glutened’, there is no solution. There is nothing you can take to lessen the blow, reduce the inflammation in the gut, or protect the intestine from damage,” she says.

Kristen is not alone in her realization that a gluten-free diet may not be enough to treat celiac disease; there are at least four biotechnology companies conducting human studies of drugs designed specifically for celiac patients (http://www.celiaccentral.org/drugdevelopment/Who-s-Who/915/). I’d like to write a story that covers the issue and surveys the various avenues these companies are taking to tackle it. One drug, for example, reduces the “leakiness” of the gut, while another chops up gluten before the body detects it.

I can include perspectives from Kristen, who has a fascinating diagnosis story (as a graduate student, she donated blood for a pilot research study unrelated to celiac during a time when she was having intestinal problems and the student doing the study told her that her white blood cell count was high, which prompted her doctor to do an anti-gluten antibody test).

I can also easily get access to the scientific director at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness and I have a lot of experience covering drug development and clinical trials from work I’ve done for Nature Medicine. I think this would be an important piece for many readers of Everyday Health who either are suffering or know someone who is suffering from celiac despite attempts to keep a gluten-free diet.

Thanks for your time,


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