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Coeliac disease is caused by an immune reaction to the gluten protein and is estimated to affect one in 70 New Zealanders and 1.4% of the global population.
An initial trial of the drug in New Zealand and Australia was successful and researchers were now looking for volunteers in Auckland, Wellington and Havelock North for the next phase of testing.
Coeliac New Zealand general manager Dana Alexander said the programme was identifying a way to desensitise the body’s immune response to gluten — similar to turning off an allergic response.
‘‘If successful, the vaccine would enable people with the disease to be free from the risk of being aglutened, which would be particularly beneficial when dining away from the home or where safe gluten-free options aren’t available.’’
Dunedin-born researcher Dr Bob Anderson has been working on the drug, Nexvax2, at Massachusetts biotech company ImmusanT since 2012.
In 2014, phase one trials in locations including Auckland taught researchers that coeliac symptoms were triggered by T cells rapidly responding to gluten peptides.
It also showed that the immune system could be retrained to ignore gluten peptides by administering repeated doses of Nexvax2.
The phase two study aimed to show that regular doses of the drug could protect against the effects of one-off gluten exposure in coeliac patients doing their best to avoid gluten.
‘‘The goal with Nexvax2 is not to replace the gluten-free diet, but to protect against acute symptoms due to inadvertent gluten exposure, an all too common problem faced by coeliac patients on a frequent basis,’’ he said.
Ms Alexander hoped that one day Nexvax2 may go a step further and allow for relaxation of dietary restrictions in people with the disease. — NZME