Blood from a baby’s umbilical cord could soon show the possibility of a child developing food allergies before their first birthday. The new research also shows those with an allergy are primed for it before they are born.
An Australian research team has discovered a new pattern of immune activation at birth that is associated with an increased risk of babies developing food allergies in early life. The finding could lead to future treatments for allergy prevention in infants.
Professor Len Harrison, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research says the team discovered a new immune “signature” in cord blood at birth that identifies babies at risk of developing food allergies.
“We found a link between children who had hyperactive immune cells at birth and the development of allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat and other common foods in their first years of life,” Professor Harrison said.
The research, led by Dr Yuxia Zhang and Professor Harrison from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and Associate Professor Peter Vuillermin from Barwon Health, Deakin University and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Dr Zhang says babies at risk of developing food allergies have activated immune cells at birth.
The research used food allergy information collected by the Barwon Infant Study, a health study of more than 1000 pregnant women and their babies in Victoria.
Associate Professor Vuillermin, a paediatrician who leads the study, says childhood food allergies have become very common in Australia.
“There has been a three-fold increase in hospital presentations due to food allergy over recent decades, and most of this increase has been among children under five years of age,” he says. “In fact up to one in every 10 babies in Melbourne develop food allergy during the first year of life.”
But Mr Vuillermin says researchers don’t know why the increase has occurred. “The important thing about this study is that we’ve shown the immune systems of babies who develop food allergy are in a sense ‘primed’ for allergic disease by the time they are born,” he says.
Professor Harrison says one of the next steps for the research team is to identify why these babies have hyperactive immune cells.