Scientists said on Wednesday that they would soon begin developing a potential vaccine for coeliac disease, the common, debilitating complaint that forces sufferers to eat a gluten-free diet.
The breakthrough follows work by a team at Oxford University who said that they had identified the protein components in cereal crops responsible for the disorder which affects around one in every 100 people.
Principal investigator Dr Robert Anderson, now based at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, said the finding dramatically increased the possibility of developing a therapeutic vaccine.
Anderson, who will give details at the Australian Gastroenterology Week conference in Adelaide on Thursday, said in a statement that Australian researchers would soon begin work on designing and testing the potential vaccine.
The research confirms that almost all people with coeliac disease react to a common set of protein sequences in gliadin, part of the gluten protein in wheat, rye, and barley.
"This opens the way for a specific diagnostic test for the disease as well as new prevention and treatment strategies, and even the possibilities of producing wheat that does not contain the rogue sequence," said BTG, the London-based technology transfer company which has bought the rights to the discovery.
More than 90 per cent of people diagnosed with coeliac disease have a gene known as HLA-DQ2, which facilitates the initiation of an immune response to gliadin.
However, environmental factors also play a role and it is this aspect of the disease that researchers believe can be modified.
Anderson said future research still needed to prove that a peptide, or small protein, could be used to desensitise or induce tolerance in people with coeliac disease.
At present, the only approved treatment is lifelong avoidance of gluten in the diet. This can be difficult and costly for patients and there is always the risk of cross contamination during food processing.