Immune system found to attack bone tissue in coeliacs

Having studied a protein called osteoprotegerin (OPG) in people with celiac disease, researchers from the University of Edinburgh, led by Professor Stuart Ralston, of the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, believe that people with celiac disease may develop osteoporosis because their immune system attacks their bone tissue.

In healthy people, OPG plays a crucial role in maintaining bone health by controlling the rate at which bone tissue is removed. But the latest research shows that 20% of coeliac patients produce antibodies that attack the OPG protein and stop it working properly. This results in rapid bone destruction and severe osteoporosis.

It was previously believed that osteoporosis developed in coeliac patients because they cannot properly absorb calcium and vitamin D (both essential for bone health) from their diet.

However the researchers found that although this new form of osteoporosis did not respond to calcium and vitamin D supplements, it can be easily treated with drugs that prevent bone loss.

The research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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