Organoid Model Opens New Path for Studying Celiac Disease

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NAVS supports the funding of research into the development of human-relevant, cell-based models such as organoids, and we remain encouraged that these kinds of tools will significantly reduce, and one day replace, animal use in science.

That’s why we are excited to share with you a significant development in the area of celiac disease research, all made possible by a human-relevant, intestinal organoid model. Currently, the only “treatment” for celiac disease is adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. This in vitro model is providing a new research pathway for studying celiac disease—one that has not previously been possible using existing animal models.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which ingestion of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barely, can lead to damage of the digestive system and inflammation in the body. The disease impacts about 1% of the general population. In the quest for a model to research the condition and develop treatments, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital turned to intestinal organoids.

“We currently have no animal model that can recapitulate the response to gluten that we see in humans,” noted Stefania Senger, author of a recent Scientific Reports article on the topic.  Researchers involved in the study indicated that scientific progress on the disease “has been mainly generated by in vitro studies on whole biopsies, or on immortalized or cancer cell lines.

In their current study, researchers created human intestinal organoids from biopsies of patients with and without celiac disease and examined their response to environmental factors, like gluten. 

They discovered that 472 genes are regulated differently in the organoids from patients with celiac disease compared to the control organoids. Many of these genes are associated with cellular functions potentially related to the disease, such as maintenance of the gut barrier, stem cell regeneration and immune functions.  These results provide useful insight into the early stages of celiac disease that remained elusive because of limitations of existing models and validate these intestinal organoids as important models in celiac disease research.

“We believe our observations represent a major shift in the study of celiac disease,” noted Senger. “We are confident that with adequate funding we could achieve major goals that include the development and implementation of…drug screenings to quickly identify new treatments for patients and expand the organoid repository to develop more complex models and pursue personalized treatment.”

Research of this nature is extremely promising, and it lays the foundation for a day when scientists will turn to in vitro solutions rather than continuing the status quo of using animal models.

Help NAVS and IFER support smarter science that advances discovery, innovation and human-relevant solutions without the use of harmful, flawed and costly animal experiments by making a donation today.


Flaherty, S. “3-D model can study gene expression in autoimmune response to gluten.” MGH Communications.

Freire, R., et al. “Human gut derived-organoids provide model to study gluten response and effects of microbiota-derived molecules in celiac disease,” Scientific Reports, May 2019.

This entry was posted in News and tagged on July 8, 2019.
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