Objective of Analysis
The objective of this evidence-based evaluation is to assess the accuracy of serologic tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease in subjects with symptoms consistent with this disease. Furthermore the impact of these tests in the diagnostic pathway of the disease and decision making was also evaluated.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that develops in genetically predisposed individuals. The immunological response is triggered by ingestion of gluten, a protein that is present in wheat, rye, and barley. The treatment consists of strict lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet (GFD).
Patients with celiac disease may present with a myriad of symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, iron deficiency anemia, dermatitis herpetiformis, among others.
Serologic Testing in the Diagnosis Celiac Disease
There are a number of serologic tests used in the diagnosis of celiac disease.
Anti-gliadin antibody (AGA)
Anti-endomysial antibody (EMA)
Anti-tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG)
Anti-deamidated gliadin peptides antibodies (DGP)
Serologic tests are automated with the exception of the EMA test, which is more time-consuming and operator-dependent than the other tests. For each serologic test, both immunoglobulin A (IgA) or G (IgG) can be measured, however, IgA measurement is the standard antibody measured in celiac disease.
Diagnosis of Celiac Disease
According to celiac disease guidelines, the diagnosis of celiac disease is established by small bowel biopsy. Serologic tests are used to initially detect and to support the diagnosis of celiac disease. A small bowel biopsy is indicated in individuals with a positive serologic test. In some cases an endoscopy and small bowel biopsy may be required even with a negative serologic test. The diagnosis of celiac disease must be performed on a gluten-containing diet since the small intestine abnormalities and the serologic antibody levels may resolve or improve on a GFD.
Since IgA measurement is the standard for the serologic celiac disease tests, false negatives may occur in IgA-deficient individuals.
Incidence and Prevalence of Celiac Disease
The incidence and prevalence of celiac disease in the general population and in subjects with symptoms consistent with or at higher risk of celiac disease based on systematic reviews published in 2004 and 2009 are summarized below.
Incidence of Celiac Disease in the General Population
Adults or mixed population: 1 to 17/100,000/year
Children: 2 to 51/100,000/year
In one of the studies, a stratified analysis showed that there was a higher incidence of celiac disease in younger children compared to older children, i.e., 51 cases/100,000/year in 0 to 2 year-olds, 33/100,000/year in 2 to 5 year-olds, and 10/100,000/year in children 5 to 15 years old.
Prevalence of Celiac Disease in the General Population
The prevalence of celiac disease reported in population-based studies identified in the 2004 systematic review varied between 0.14% and 1.87% (median: 0.47%, interquartile range: 0.25%, 0.71%). According to the authors of the review, the prevalence did not vary by age group, i.e., adults and children.
Prevalence of Celiac Disease in High Risk Subjects
Type 1 diabetes (adults and children): 1 to 11%
Autoimmune thyroid disease: 2.9 to 3.3%
First degree relatives of patients with celiac disease: 2 to 20%
Prevalence of Celiac Disease in Subjects with Symptoms Consistent with the Disease
The prevalence of celiac disease in subjects with symptoms consistent with the disease varied widely among studies, i.e., 1.5% to 50% in adult studies, and 1.1% to 17% in pediatric studies. Differences in prevalence may be related to the referral pattern as the authors of a systematic review noted that the prevalence tended to be higher in studies whose population originated from tertiary referral centres compared to general practice.
What is the sensitivity and specificity of serologic tests in the diagnosis celiac disease?
What is the clinical validity of serologic tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease? The clinical validity was defined as the ability of the test to change diagnosis.
What is the clinical utility of serologic tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease? The clinical utility was defined as the impact of the test on decision making.
What is the budget impact of serologic tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease?
What is the cost-effectiveness of serologic tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease?
A literature search was performed on November 13th, 2009 using OVID MEDLINE, MEDLINE In-Process and Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE, the Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), the Cochrane Library, and the International Agency for Health Technology Assessment (INAHTA) for studies published from January 1st 2003 and November 13th 2010. Abstracts were reviewed by a single reviewer and, for those studies meeting the eligibility criteria, full-text articles were obtained. Reference lists were also examined for any additional relevant studies not identified through the search. Articles with unknown eligibility were reviewed with a second clinical epidemiologist, then a group of epidemiologists until consensus was established. The quality of evidence was assessed as high, moderate, low or very low according to GRADE methodology.
Studies that evaluated diagnostic accuracy, i.e., both sensitivity and specificity of serology tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease.
Study population consisted of untreated patients with symptoms consistent with celiac disease.
Studies in which both serologic celiac disease tests and small bowel biopsy (gold standard) were used in all subjects.
Systematic reviews, meta-analyses, randomized controlled trials, prospective observational studies, and retrospective cohort studies.
At least 20 subjects included in the celiac disease group.
Studies published from 2000 on.
Clearly defined cut-off value for the serology test. If more than one test was evaluated, only those tests for which a cut-off was provided were included.
Description of small bowel biopsy procedure clearly outlined (location, number of biopsies per patient), unless if specified that celiac disease diagnosis guidelines were followed.
Patients in the treatment group had untreated CD.
Studies on screening of the general asymptomatic population.
Studies that evaluated rapid diagnostic kits for use either at home or in physician’s offices.
Studies that evaluated diagnostic modalities other than serologic tests such as capsule endoscopy, push enteroscopy, or genetic testing.
Cut-off for serologic tests defined based on controls included in the study.
Study population defined based on positive serology or subjects pre-screened by serology tests.
Celiac disease status known before study enrolment.
Sensitivity or specificity estimates based on repeated testing for the same subject.
Non-peer-reviewed literature such as editorials and letters to the editor.
The population consisted of adults and children with untreated, undiagnosed celiac disease with symptoms consistent with the disease.
Serologic Celiac Disease Tests Evaluated
Anti-gliadin antibody (AGA)
Anti-endomysial antibody (EMA)
Anti-tissue transglutaminase antibody (tTG)
Anti-deamidated gliadin peptides antibody (DGP)
Combinations of some of the serologic tests listed above were evaluated in some studies
Both IgA and IgG antibodies were evaluated for the serologic tests listed above.
Outcomes of Interest
Positive and negative likelihood ratios
Diagnostic odds ratio (OR)
Area under the sROC curve (AUC)
Small bowel biopsy was used as the gold standard in order to estimate the sensitivity and specificity of each serologic test.
Pooled estimates of sensitivity, specificity and diagnostic odds ratios (DORs) for the different serologic tests were calculated using a bivariate, binomial generalized linear mixed model. Statistical significance for differences in sensitivity and specificity between serologic tests was defined by P values less than 0.05, where “false discovery rate” adjustments were made for multiple hypothesis testing. The bivariate regression analyses were performed using SAS version 9.2 (SAS Institute Inc.; Cary, NC, USA). Using the bivariate model parameters, summary receiver operating characteristic (sROC) curves were produced using Review Manager 5.0.22 (The Nordiac Cochrane Centre, The Cochrane Collaboration, 2008). The area under the sROC curve (AUC) was estimated by bivariate mixed-efects binary regression modeling framework. Model specification, estimation and prediction are carried out with xtmelogit in Stata release 10 (Statacorp, 2007). Statistical tests for the differences in AUC estimates could not be carried out.
The study results were stratified according to patient or disease characteristics such as age, severity of Marsh grade abnormalities, among others, if reported in the studies. The literature indicates that the diagnostic accuracy of serologic tests for celiac disease may be affected in patients with chronic liver disease, therefore, the studies identified through the systematic literature review that evaluated the diagnostic accuracy of serologic tests for celiac disease in patients with chronic liver disease were summarized. The effect of the GFD in patiens diagnosed with celiac disease was also summarized if reported in the studies eligible for the analysis.
Summary of Findings
Published Systematic Reviews
Five systematic reviews of studies that evaluated the diagnostic accuracy of serologic celiac disease tests were identified through our literature search. Seventeen individual studies identified in adults and children were eligible for this evaluation.
In general, the studies included evaluated the sensitivity and specificity of at least one serologic test in subjects with symptoms consistent with celiac disease. The gold standard used to confirm the celiac disease diagnosis was small bowel biopsy. Serologic tests evaluated included tTG, EMA, AGA, and DGP, using either IgA or IgG antibodies. Indirect immunoflurorescence was used for the EMA serologic tests whereas enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used for the other serologic tests.
Common symptoms described in the studies were chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, unexplained weight loss, unexplained anemia, and dermatitis herpetiformis.
The main conclusions of the published systematic reviews are summarized below.
IgA tTG and/or IgA EMA have a high accuracy (pooled sensitivity: 90% to 98%, pooled specificity: 95% to 99% depending on the pooled analysis).
Most reviews found that AGA (IgA or IgG) are not as accurate as IgA tTG and/or EMA tests.
A 2009 systematic review concluded that DGP (IgA or IgG) seems to have a similar accuracy compared to tTG, however, since only 2 studies identified evaluated its accuracy, the authors believe that additional data is required to draw firm conclusions.
Two systematic reviews also concluded that combining two serologic celiac disease tests has little contribution to the accuracy of the diagnosis.
The pooled analysis performed by MAS showed that IgA tTG has a sensitivity of 92.1% [95% confidence interval (CI) 88.0, 96.3], compared to 89.2% (83.3, 95.1, p=0.12) for IgA DGP, 85.1% (79.5, 94.4, p=0.07) for IgA EMA, and 74.9% (63.6, 86.2, p=0.0003) for IgA AGA. Among the IgG-based tests, the results suggest that IgG DGP has a sensitivity of 88.4% (95% CI: 82.1, 94.6), 44.7% (30.3, 59.2) for tTG, and 69.1% (56.0, 82.2) for AGA. The difference was significant when IgG DGP was compared to IgG tTG but not IgG AGA. Combining serologic celiac disease tests yielded a slightly higher sensitivity compared to individual IgA-based serologic tests.
The prevalence of total or severe IgA deficiency was low in the studies identified varying between 0 and 1.7% as reported in 3 studies in which IgA deficiency was not used as a referral indication for celiac disease serologic testing. The results of IgG-based serologic tests were positive in all patients with IgA deficiency in which celiac disease was confirmed by small bowel biopsy as reported in four studies.
The MAS pooled analysis indicates a high specificity across the different serologic tests including the combination strategy, pooled estimates ranged from 90.1% to 98.7% depending on the test.
According to the likelihood ratio estimates, both IgA tTG and serologic test combinationa were considered very useful tests (positive likelihood ratio above ten and the negative likelihood ratio below 0.1).
Moderately useful tests included IgA EMA, IgA DGP, and IgG DGP (positive likelihood ratio between five and ten and the negative likelihood ratio between 0.1 and 0.2).
Somewhat useful tests: IgA AGA, IgG AGA, generating small but sometimes important changes from pre- to post-test probability (positive LR between 2 and 5 and negative LR between 0.2 and 0.5)
Not Useful: IgG tTG, altering pre- to post-test probability to a small and rarely important degree (positive LR between 1 and 2 and negative LR between 0.5 and 1).
Diagnostic Odds Ratios (DOR)
Among the individual serologic tests, IgA tTG had the highest DOR, 136.5 (95% CI: 51.9, 221.2). The statistical significance of the difference in DORs among tests was not calculated, however, considering the wide confidence intervals obtained, the differences may not be statistically significant.
Area Under the sROC Curve (AUC)
The sROC AUCs obtained ranged between 0.93 and 0.99 for most IgA-based tests with the exception of IgA AGA, with an AUC of 0.89.
Sensitivity and Specificity of Serologic Tests According to Age Groups
Serologic test accuracy did not seem to vary according to age (adults or children).
Sensitivity and Specificity of Serologic Tests According to Marsh Criteria
Four studies observed a trend towards a higher sensitivity of serologic celiac disease tests when Marsh 3c grade abnormalities were found in the small bowel biopsy compared to Marsh 3a or 3b (statistical significance not reported). The sensitivity of serologic tests was much lower when Marsh 1 grade abnormalities were found in small bowel biopsy compared to Marsh 3 grade abnormalities. The statistical significance of these findings were not reported in the studies.
Diagnostic Accuracy of Serologic Celiac Disease Tests in Subjects with Chronic Liver Disease
A total of 14 observational studies that evaluated the specificity of serologic celiac disease tests in subjects with chronic liver disease were identified. All studies evaluated the frequency of false positive results (1-specificity) of IgA tTG, however, IgA tTG test kits using different substrates were used, i.e., human recombinant, human, and guinea-pig substrates. The gold standard, small bowel biopsy, was used to confirm the result of the serologic tests in only 5 studies. The studies do not seem to have been designed or powered to compare the diagnostic accuracy among different serologic celiac disease tests.
The results of the studies identified in the systematic literature review suggest that there is a trend towards a lower frequency of false positive results if the IgA tTG test using human recombinant substrate is used compared to the guinea pig substrate in subjects with chronic liver disease. However, the statistical significance of the difference was not reported in the studies. When IgA tTG with human recombinant substrate was used, the number of false positives seems to be similar to what was estimated in the MAS pooled analysis for IgA-based serologic tests in a general population of patients. These results should be interpreted with caution since most studies did not use the gold standard, small bowel biopsy, to confirm or exclude the diagnosis of celiac disease, and since the studies were not designed to compare the diagnostic accuracy among different serologic tests. The sensitivity of the different serologic tests in patients with chronic liver disease was not evaluated in the studies identified.
Effects of a Gluten-Free Diet (GFD) in Patients Diagnosed with Celiac Disease
Six studies identified evaluated the effects of GFD on clinical, histological, or serologic improvement in patients diagnosed with celiac disease. Improvement was observed in 51% to 95% of the patients included in the studies.
Grading of Evidence
Overall, the quality of the evidence ranged from moderate to very low depending on the serologic celiac disease test. Reasons to downgrade the quality of the evidence included the use of a surrogate endpoint (diagnostic accuracy) since none of the studies evaluated clinical outcomes, inconsistencies among study results, imprecise estimates, and sparse data. The quality of the evidence was considered moderate for IgA tTg and IgA EMA, low for IgA DGP, and serologic test combinations, and very low for IgA AGA.
Clinical Validity and Clinical Utility of Serologic Testing in the Diagnosis of Celiac Disease
The clinical validity of serologic tests in the diagnosis of celiac disease was considered high in subjects with symptoms consistent with this disease due to
High accuracy of some serologic tests.
Serologic tests detect possible celiac disease cases and avoid unnecessary small bowel biopsy if the test result is negative, unless an endoscopy/ small bowel biopsy is necessary due to the clinical presentation.
Serologic tests support the results of small bowel biopsy.
The clinical utility of serologic tests for the diagnosis of celiac disease, as defined by its impact in decision making was also considered high in subjects with symptoms consistent with this disease given the considerations listed above and since celiac disease diagnosis leads to treatment with a gluten-free diet.
A decision analysis was constructed to compare costs and outcomes between the tests based on the sensitivity, specificity and prevalence summary estimates from the MAS Evidence-Based Analysis (EBA). A budget impact was then calculated by multiplying the expected costs and volumes in Ontario. The outcome of the analysis was expected costs and false negatives (FN). Costs were reported in 2010 CAD$. All analyses were performed using TreeAge Pro Suite 2009.
Four strategies made up the efficiency frontier; IgG tTG, IgA tTG, EMA and small bowel biopsy. All other strategies were dominated. IgG tTG was the least costly and least effective strategy ($178.95, FN avoided=0). Small bowel biopsy was the most costly and most effective strategy ($396.60, FN avoided =0.1553). The cost per FN avoided were $293, $369, $1,401 for EMA, IgATTG and small bowel biopsy respectively. One-way sensitivity analyses did not change the ranking of strategies.
All testing strategies with small bowel biopsy are cheaper than biopsy alone however they also result in more FNs. The most cost-effective strategy will depend on the decision makers’ willingness to pay. Findings suggest that IgA tTG was the most cost-effective and feasible strategy based on its Incremental Cost-Effectiveness Ratio (ICER) and convenience to conduct the test. The potential impact of IgA tTG test in the province of Ontario would be $10.4M, $11.0M and $11.7M respectively in the following three years based on past volumes and trends in the province and basecase expected costs.
The panel of tests is the commonly used strategy in the province of Ontario therefore the impact to the system would be $13.6M, $14.5M and $15.3M respectively in the next three years based on past volumes and trends in the province and basecase expected costs.
The clinical validity and clinical utility of serologic tests for celiac disease was considered high in subjects with symptoms consistent with this disease as they aid in the diagnosis of celiac disease and some tests present a high accuracy.
The study findings suggest that IgA tTG is the most accurate and the most cost-effective test.
AGA test (IgA) has a lower accuracy compared to other IgA-based tests
Serologic test combinations appear to be more costly with little gain in accuracy. In addition there may be problems with generalizability of the results of the studies included in this review if different test combinations are used in clinical practice.
IgA deficiency seems to be uncommon in patients diagnosed with celiac disease.
The generalizability of study results is contingent on performing both the serologic test and small bowel biopsy in subjects on a gluten-containing diet as was the case in the studies identified, since the avoidance of gluten may affect test results.