PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Researchers, including some in Pittsburgh, may have discovered what causes celiac disease, a condition that makes people sensitive to gluten.

It’s an autoimmune condition where the immune system starts to attack the lining of the small intestine each time it is exposed to wheat, barley or rye.

For one local woman, 51-year-old Mary Ruth Kovak, this research means hope.

“If there were a treatment that I could take with no side effects or a vaccine,” she said.

That’s exactly what researchers are working on: a vaccine for those who have celiac disease. Not a cure, but a treatment.

Dr. Terrence Dermody, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, calls it a breakthrough.

“It turns out that about a third of people have a risk of or predisposition for celiac disease, but only about one percent of people actually get it, that made us think that there was something that triggered the development of celiac disease,” he said.

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Experimenting with mice, the team found that a harmless virus called reovirus is the key.

Reovirus is found in all infants but does not make them sick.

“We explored whether the reovirus infection at the time new food is introduced into an animal’s diet would produce a disease like celiac and we found that it did,” Dr. Terrence Dermody said.

The virus tricks the immune system into thinking gluten is a harmful and needs to be attacked.

The fact that there may be a treatment, is music to the ears and stomach of Mary Ruth Kovak.

“You can’t eat wheat, barley or rye, that is a big one, it’s flour,” Kovak said. “I miss pancakes, that’s the thing I miss the most.”

Dr. Dermody said it could take several years before a vaccine is available and ready to use.