Atlantic Gastroenterology Associates has opened a Celiac Diagnostic Center that will use advanced techniques to determine whether people with digestive issues might be allergic to gluten.

Dr. Barry Kaufman, founder of the large gastrointestinal medicine practice on Fire Road in Egg Harbor Township, said it created the area's first such center to address widespread underdiagnosis of celiac disease.

The disease - in which the body's reaction to wheat, rye and barley gluten damages the digestive tract and causes a wide variety of symptoms - is estimated to affect one in 110 people, but only a small percentage of those have been diagnosed and helped.

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Kaufman said he believes the number of people with celiac or a related adverse reaction to gluten is much higher.

"Maybe 5 or 6 percent have celiac-related issues. We're not sure what category they're in, but in our minds they're partially celiac," he said. "Our feeling was that as we began to see the diversity of presentations of this, and frequently patients didn't have the full-blown illness we were taught to recognize, we had to consider other methods of diagnosis."

The Celiac Diagnostic Center has a pathology lab on site for processing biopsies of upper digestive tract tissue - still the most informative test for celiac disease even though a blood test can often detect an allergic response to gluten.

"We don't just use the blood test anymore to tell us yes or no," Kaufman said. "There are inflammatory changes in the upper intestinal tract that in the past weren't recognized as indicative of celiac, more subtle changes, entirely microscopic, and we're focused on those."

Even people who have been told they do not have celiac disease might want to reconsider gluten intolerance as a possible cause if they have symptoms such as bloating or abdominal pain, he said.

The practice has also added specially trained technicians to its staff of 35 so the center can conduct breath tests to determine which nutrients a person is absorbing, he said, which can indicate impairment of the digestive tract.

Kaufman founded Atlantic Gastroenterology Associates in 1981. The practice now has four full-time gastroenterologists who are ownership partners, and another three such doctors part time.

Beyond such common procedures as colonoscopies to screen for cancer, Atlantic Gastroenterology's use of technology and conduct of clinical trials is more like university-level work, Kaufman said.

"For example, coming up soon we'll set up a hepatitis treatment center. We did some of the early phase trials for hepatitis drugs that were recently approved," he said.

Other research involves inflammatory bowel disease and "patients in the region may qualify for novel treatments being studied scientifically in clinical trials," Kaufman said.

Among advanced technologies used at the practice are:

  • two versions of PillCam, a capsule-mounted camera slightly larger than a vitamin that provides digital images of the small intestine or the esophagus;
  • the Bravo System for measuring acid reflux by attaching a tiny sensor to the wall of the esophagus;
  • the SmartPill that provides information about stomach and bowel actions;
  • Restech, a device for evaluating respiratory symptoms related to acid reflux.

Kaufman said the Celiac Diagnostic Center was born from the growing appreciation for the spectrum of gluten-related disorders and the different ways they are expressed.

"We don't want to deny anybody the opportunity of finding out whether or not they have it," he said.

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