Canadian researchers are testing a new drug for patients who suffer from the chronic digestive disorder called celiac disease, which appears to be afflicting a growing number of people.

Celiac disease is caused by an abnormal response to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other common foods.

The disease damages structures in the lining of the small intestine called villi, which in turn impairs the body's absorption of nutrients. It causes symptoms that include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and weight loss.

There is no cure for the disease, and the only way to avoid the symptoms is to avoid gluten. Yet all sorts of food, and even medicines and vitamins can contain gluten, meaning those with celiac are forced to stick to strict diets.

Catherine Panejko, 20, was diagnosed with celiac a year ago, and finds that even a single drop of a wheat product can trigger fatigue, bloating, weight loss and anemia.

"I can't eat cakes, yogurts. I have to be careful with ice cream, (gluten) is in everything -- even rice crackers," she says.

Panejko is now one of the patients trying the frist medication for celiac disease, called Larazati. The treatment is not meant to cure the illness, but it is designed to protect the digestive tract against the damaging disorder. According to researchers, the drug could make life easier for thousands.

"It's the first drug of its kind and we are very excited about the results it is demonstrating," says Dr. Richard Fedorak, who is a professor of medicine specializing in gastroenterology at the University of Alberta.

Fedorak says the new medication prevents the afflicted intestines from becoming damaged, even if the patient ingests a small amount of gluten. He says Larazati strengthens the tiny junctions that hold the intestine together, which blocks the gluten from seeping into the tissue and damaging it.

To test the drug, research patients took Larazati pills and then ingested foods containing gluten. The researchers were pleased with the results

"It was startling that the patients with the active medication had [fewer] symptoms on ingesting gluten than those on placebo," said Fedorak.

The clinical trial also demonstrated that the drug could also help repair already damaged intestines, since the pills essentially fortify the patient's tissue.

While researchers are impressed with the drug's performance so far, they say that it shouldn't be considered a cure for celiac disease. Instead, they say the pills could help patients in their everyday lives, and allow them to eat at restaurants and ingest small amounts of gluten without fear of falling ill.

Panejko says any help is welcome.

"It was a relief, it was a huge relief," she said, adding that the clinical trial worked for her. "It was a lot better, I didn't feel bloated -- that is the worst thing for me."

Still, Jim McCarthy, the executive director of the Canadian Celiac Association, says more research needs to be done on the pill.

"They still have some way to go in terms of clinical studies to prove their value and their safety," he said.

Meanwhile, researchers are also working on a vaccine for the disorder, and other medications could also soon hit the marketplace. In fact, one such medication would break down the gluten itself.

"It is encouraging to see that there may be alternative therapies, other than the strict gluten-free diet," says McCarthy.