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History of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a serious, genetic autoimmune disease. It is believed that celiac disease first began in humans at the advent of the first agricultural revolution.

As early human diets began to expand, adding in grains, domesticated livestock and cultivated crops, most bodies were able to adapt—however, some did not and certain food sensitivities, intolerances and celiac disease made their first appearances in human history.

Before the true trigger for celiac disease, the protein gluten, was discovered, many treatments and diets were tried, including strict rice, mussel and even banana diets. It wasn’t until World War II that first wheat and finally gluten began to come into focus as the culprit.

A Brief Timeline of Celiac Disease

1–100 AD: woman has celiac disease genes and damage.

In 2008, an archaeological dig in Cosa, Italy revealed an 18-20-year-old woman from the first century AD, with signs of failure to thrive and malnutrition. The skeleton showed the presence of the celiac gene HLA-DQ2.5 and damage typically seen from celiac disease.

101–200 AD: Aretaeus of Cappadocia writes the first medical description of celiac disease.

Greek physician and medical writer Aretaeus of Cappadocia clinically describes the first earliest account of celiac disease, which he refers to as “The Coeliac Affection.” He names the disease “koiliakos” after the Greek word “koelia” (abdomen) and described it as thus: “If the stomach be irretentive of the food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons coeliacs.”

1600s: philosopher Blaise Pascal is believed by some to have suffered from celiac disease.

It’s believed by some that philosopher Blaise Pascal may have suffered from and perhaps died from celiac disease. He is said to have suffered from abdominal pain throughout his childhood that continued and progressed into adulthood. He is said to have also experienced other celiac disease symptoms such as neurological issues, migraines and depression.

1800s: Matthew Baillie describes a diarrheal disorder that improves on a rice-based diet.

British physician and pathologist Matthew Baillie describes a chronic gastrointestinal condition that responded to a rice-heavy diet. He noted in a publication that those who suffered from the disorder experienced chronic diarrhea and malnutrition. He wrote that he’d observed that “some patients have appeared to derive considerable advantage from living almost entirely upon rice.” This rice-heavy diet would most likely be very low in gluten, or even gluten-free, depending on what other ingredients were eaten—which would help those suffering from celiac disease.

1887: Dr. Samuel Gee writes the first modern medical description of celiac disease and hypothesizes it can be treated through diet.

English doctor Samuel Gee says people with “celiac affection” can be cured by diet. Gee first presented the modern definition of celiac disease at a lecture at the Hospital for Sick Children in London. He theorized that the disease needed to be treated through food, saying that he believed if a person were to be cured it would be through their diet. Gee tried multiple types of diets with his patients, including a Dutch mussel diet. However, during his lifetime he was never able to pinpoint which food triggered the disease.

1924: Dr. Sidney Haas treats children with celiac disease with his banana diet.

American pediatrician Sidney Haas announces a “banana diet” that treats celiac disease after treating children with a diet high in bananas and forbidding starches. Before Dr. Haas’s “banana diet”, more than 30% of children with celiac disease died. Since the diet was gluten-free (albeit unintentionally) and high in calories, it helped children with the disease heal their villi and their lives were saved. Parents from all over the United States brought their children with celiac disease to Dr. Haas to be treated. The banana diet continued to be used to treat some children until the early 1950s. It did have its downsides though, as many believed that once the children were healed that they were “cured” and could go back on a normal, gluten-containing diet, which leads to damaging the villi and a host of other serious side effects.

1940s: Dr. Willem Dicke theorizes that wheat is triggering celiac disease and develops a wheat-free diet to treat celiac disease patients.

Dutch pediatrician Willem Karel Dicke hypothesizes that wheat protein may be the culprit to triggering celiac disease. He made the connection during WWII, when during the Dutch Famine, bread became unavailable in the Netherlands. Dr. Dicke noticed that throughout this time, the mortality rate for celiac disease dropped to zero in his hospital. He went on to develop a wheat-free diet.

1952: Medical team publishes their findings about wheat and rye flour and celiac disease.

The English medical team shared results of studies showing how celiac disease patients improved when wheat and rye flour was removed from their diets. Gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye, was later pinpointed as the exact trigger for celiac disease.

1956: Dr. Margot shiner performs the first oral biopsy on a child with celiac disease.

German-British gastroenterologist and medical researcher Margot Shiner discovers a new technique to biopsy intestines. This jejunal biopsy instrument helped in the diagnosis of celiac disease, among other GI disorders. She has been credited with launching the specialty of modern pediatric gastroenterology.

1970s-1990s: Celiac disease is recognized as an autoimmune disease and genes are pinpointed.

In the 1970s, the HLA-DQ2 gene is associated with celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis. Then in the 1980s, the connection between celiac disease and autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 Diabetes, becomes accepted within the medical community. By the early 1990s, celiac disease is accepted as an autoimmune disease with a specific gene (either HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8). While in 1997, The role of the antigen tissue transglutaminase (TtG) in celiac disease is discovered.

2003: Beyond Celiac is founded.

Originally named the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Beyond Celiac was established as the first celiac disease patient advocacy group dedicated to driving diagnosis and enabling access to gluten-free food. Later, Beyond Celiac pivots to research for treatments and a cure after studies show that a gluten-free diet is not enough for many with celiac disease.

2006: First potential drugs for celiac disease begin the clinical trial process.

Larazotide acetate (formerly known as AT-1001), an eight amino acid peptide, was one of the first potential medical treatments for celiac disease began testing in clinical trials. Since then many have joined the race for treatments for celiac disease and studies continue to show the burden of the gluten-free diet along with the fact many with celiac disease aren’t healing despite following the diet strictly.

The Future of Celiac Disease

Beyond Celiac firmly believes that with a strategic approach to funding focused research, an effective treatment or cure for celiac disease could be possible within the next 10 to 15 years. 

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