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Celiac Disease Timeline: A Glutinous History

The story of gluten stretches from humans’ first taste of wheat 10,000 years ago to modern advances in treating celiac disease.

By Cathryn Delude // Winter 2010
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planet earth

Saul Gravy/Getty Images

2.5 million years ago

Early humans evolved, probably in Africa.


Chris Stein/Getty Images

10,000 years ago

The Neolithic agricultural revolution introduced wheat and other cultivated grains to the human diet.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia

Wellcome Library

Second century A.D.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia described a condition called koiliakos (derived from koelia, Greek for abdomen) that caused abdominal pain and diarrhea, referring to patients with the malady as celiacs.


Justin Lightley/Getty Images


British physician Samuel Gee published the first modern description of this ancient affliction, suggesting it was associated with diet. To relieve symptoms, in the 1920s many diets (including all-banana and all-carbohydrate) were introduced.


Dutch physician Willem Karel Dicke’s recommendation of a wheat-free diet was supported by the discovery that celiac disease declined during the bread shortages of the Second World War but climbed again after the war.

gluten free label

Pulse Picture Library/CMP Images/Phototake


By studying fecal content, Dicke and his colleagues identified gluten as the trigger for celiac disease, and the gluten-free diet became standard treatment.

small intestine biopsy



In London, gastroenterologist Margot Shiner developed the definitive way to diagnose celiac disease: a biopsy based on a specific pattern of damage to the fingerlike villi in the small intestine.


Immunologist Ludvig Sollid’s group from Oslo narrowed down the major genetic risk for celiac disease to two versions of the histocompatibility leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecule.


Gastroenterologist Detlef Schuppan, then at the Free University of Berlin, discovered that the autoantibodies of celiac patients are directed against tissue transglutaminase (an enzyme released from the intestine’s cells when gluten passes into the mucosal layer). He introduced a simple blood-screening test for initial diagnosis.

alessio fasano

Courtesy of Center for Celiac Research, University of Maryland


At the University of Maryland, Alessio Fasano discovered zonulin, a molecule he believes increases intestinal permeability and vulnerability to celiac disease.


Clinical trials testing new nondietary therapies for celiac disease are under way, including one to reduce intestinal permeability.


Celiac Disease: Eating Away at You


Avoid gluten, and celiac disease loses its sting. But research continues, and breakthroughs might treat other disorders too.

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