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Opening of research centre for coeliac disease

Between one and three per cent of Norway’s population have coeliac disease, and many are undiagnosed. The K.G. Jebsen Coeliac Disease Research Centre opened on 18 August. Here, researchers will develop better treatment and diagnosis of coeliac disease.

Head of centre, Ludvig Sollid, with Sveinung Hole, representative of the K.G. Jebsen foundation, at the official opening of the K.G.Jebsen Coeliac Disease Research Centre. Photo: Kristin Ellefsen, UiO.

The researchers at the Centre will conduct basic research as well as clinical trials on patients. The Centre will receive NOK 18 million from the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation over a period of four years, and the University of Oslo will match this funding. This forms the basis for further development of a research community that has already made a significant contribution to knowledge about coeliac disease, as well as its treatment and diagnosis.

– Our mission is to pave the way for advancement in research that is already world-class, said the foundation’s representative, Sveinung Hole, during the opening ceremony.

In his speech, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Frode Vartdal, emphasized that coeliac disease is the autoimmune disorder of which we have most knowledge, and the research will therefore also make a significant contribution to research into other autoimmune diseases.

Focus on patients

Patients are important to the centre’s research. At the opening, Heidi Urwin, patient representative of the charity Coeliac UK, gave a talk on the work being done in the UK to improve the lives of coeliac sufferers. They work closely with patients and relatives to assess the need for new knowledge, to disseminate existing knowledge to the general public, and to map out areas that require more research.

The fact that many people go for years without being diagnosed is a matter of concern for the organization. This was also the main focus of Professor Knut Lundin’s talk.

– The clinical symptoms are very general. People suffer from fatigue, they have digestive problems. The symptoms can be very vague. Many people simply attribute them to the stressful lives they lead, Lundin commented.

Good diagnostic criteria are therefore not the only important factor, but also knowledge among the general public and GPs, so that patients are sent to the hospital for assessment.

Current diagnosis and treatment

Today, the researchers know that there are two genes specific to coeliac disease. Approximately 30% of the population have these genes, but only 1─3% develop the illness. Determining whether a person has the genes can be a first indication of whether or not they have coeliac disease. They have also developed blood tests, and make a diagnosis by examining samples of intestinal tissue.

However, it is not always so easy to make the diagnosis based on the available methods.

– I would like to be able to tell my patients with 100% certainty whether they have the disease or not. Unfortunately, I cannot always do that today, says Lundin.

The researchers are also working to find treatment methods that can be used in addition to, and gradually perhaps replace, a gluten-free diet. At present, a gluten-free diet is the only effective treatment. The researchers are now focusing on the development of treatment that can make it possible for coeliacs to tolerate a certain amount of gluten in their diet without experiencing symptoms. In the future they hope to be able to find a treatment that obviates the need for a diet.

Collaboration with Oslo University Hospital

– The type of research that we intend to do would be impossible without good collaboration with the hospital, emphasized Ludvig Sollid, the leader of the Centre, in his opening speech.

He was supported by Bjørn Erikstein, Director of Oslo University Hospital, who stated that the collaboration between UiO and OUS is essential for achieving the hospital’s objective to develop future treatment methods.

The collaboration ensures that the researchers to have access to patients for their studies, so that the knowledge they generate through basic research can benefit patients as rapidly as possible. The goal of the Centre is to be a clinical research site at the international forefront, and a place of education where clinicians and basic researchers work alongside one another.

By Guro Flinterud
Published Aug. 25, 2016 1:25 PM