What is your area of food allergy research?
Food allergy research is really in its infancy. It’s just really starting to take off.
A number of folks in the center, including myself, are trying to understand how food allergy first gets established. Especially since these children who become food allergic or are food allergic, their first episode happens very early in life, even before they are exposed to a lot of the foods. For example, with the first introduction of peanuts, some of them can be anaphylactic. Trying to understand how food allergy develops is important because we may be able to intervene prior to them even being born.
What are your current research projects?
It is estimated that 90 percent of an infant’s early life is spent in the home with their parents, so the idea that the environment is influencing immune response is very strong.
One of the projects that we have is a multicenter project with Henry Ford in Detroit to look at a birth cohort of children and their mothers. What are the mothers’ nutrition? How are they influencing the development of allergic response?
We think there may be some predisposition to food allergy that’s occurring, even before birth. Really understanding the mechanisms is going to be the underlying basis for development of prevention in therapy.
Why is this area of research important to the field of food allergy?
There is no treatment for this disease. We don’t know how to prevent it yet. There are some ideas behind why it develops: People are living in a cleaner environment and are not exposed to bacteria early in life that they should be. More parents are allergic and therefore they pass that on to their children. Coming in where we’re at, it really gives us the opportunity to establish areas that researchers really haven’t investigated.
We take a lot of cues from other diseases. I’ve worked in allergic asthma for 25-plus years, for example, and when I started, it was a similar situation where the disease had been rising quickly but the cause and the mediators that drive it weren’t known at all. We can take some cues from that disease, but food allergy is a very different disease than other allergic diseases.
This is a real opportunity for us as a group to not only work in our individual labs in research, but to work together to really get a synergy behind the mechanisms that are driving this.
What results have you found so far?
We know from studies that we’ve done through the original birth cohort at Henry Ford in this multicenter collaboration is that the bacteria at 1 month in these newborns can predict whether they are going to get severe allergies or not. That includes multiple food allergies.
For example, the most severe asthmatics at age 10 can be predicted based upon their gut microbiome at 1 month of age. This is what we’re finding in some of the prenatal and neonatal preclinical studies we’re doing in our lab: It’s very early on in life that the immune system is established based upon how it interacts with the environment.