Research highlights

High-Value Nutrition: products to boost immune defence against respiratory illness.

The first of the National Science Challenges: High-Value Nutrition, announced an investment of $10.9 million over three and half years, for research to accelerate the translation of New Zealand-led science into scientifically validated food products for the Asian markets. 

Dr Olivier Gasser, Translational Immunology Research Group Leader at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, is the Principal Investigator for one of the High-Value Nutrition’s priority research programmes that will investigate ways nutrition can improve immune defence against respiratory illness. This work has been allocated $3.5 million.

“Frequent colds, flu and respiratory tract infections are some of the top health issues in Asian countries. In large, densely populated cities, with low air quality and high pollution, finding foods to boost immune defence is vital. The gut is the most populace immune cell environment in the body, making it an ideal target for food to beneficially modulate immune function. Its surface area and vast microbial richness are just starting to be fully investigated with a corresponding rise in the potential to create targeted foods and beverages.”

High-Value Nutrition has drawn together researchers from different institutions and across disciplines to deliver results through collaboration. This research team includes scientists from the Malaghan Institute as well as colleagues from Plant & Food Research, AgResearch and the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand. New Zealand is already a highly regarded food producer in Asia, and foods and beverages with scientifically validated immune defence benefits will generate new opportunities for New Zealand companies.

Please read more about the High-Value Nutrition Science Challenge programme "Immune Defence", by clicking the banner below!

MIMR High Value Nutrition Banner 2017

Understanding cell’s and microbiota’s impact on the development of allergic responses

One particular emphasis of our nutrition & microbiota research is to investigate the metabolic interplay of microbiota and allergy-inducing immune cells. Similar to our body as a whole, each individual cell has the ability to run on fat, sugar or amino acids (i.e. protein); and as our readiness for physical activity is being dependent on the nutrients of the food we consume, immune cells can be observed to carry out different functions based on what they process. The metabolic control of immune activity has created a symbiosis between our body and our microbiota. For example, our colon is inhabited by anaerobic bacteria that ferment dietary fibre to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) which provides us with an additional source of energy. Additionally, SCFA stimulate immunological tolerance to harmless food antigens. Mechanistically, they can do so by docking on specific receptors on the outside of cells or enter immune cells directly to change their metabolism, gene expression profile and ultimately their function. Recent pre-clinical studies have supported this by showing that the consumption of fermentable fibre protects from allergic reactions both locally (i.e. in the gut), as well as at distant mucosal surfaces such as the lungs. Thus, a naturally selected mechanism for the education of our immune system is being suggested, whereby the gut microbiota has been given significant responsibility by feeding it particular bioactive nutrients. We are now trying to determine whether other such immune mediators exist in the large array of microbial metabolites found in the gut and whether specific food can be used to increase their production. The aim of our research is to reduce the incidence of allergy, not only in the setting of food allergy but also for skin-related disorders such as atopic dermatitis.

Gut health and the flu vaccine

The role of our gut microbiome and our health is a relatively new frontier for immunology.  How these trillions of gut bacteria develop, and their interaction with our immune system is the daily work of our Translational Immunology research team. While the research spans several areas, a link between our gut microbiome and how well we respond to influenza vaccination is the latest subject of investigation.

When we receive a flu vaccination, our bodies react to a dead or deactivated flu strain by creating protective antibodies. Ideally we build up a memory of a disease we haven’t experienced, so if or when we encounter it our bodies know exactly how to fight it. Recent cutting-edge investigations now link gut microbiota to the development of vaccine-induced protective immunity. People with a less diverse gut microbiome tend to not respond as well to vaccination, and ironically that can be the people most vulnerable to illness; the very young and the very old.

General health, nutrition, stress and the use of antibiotics are all known to play a role in the health of our gut microbiome, and in turn the health of our immune responses.  Exactly what supports or limits vaccine efficacy and duration is unclear but establishing cellular interactions in or between the microbiota in our gut and immune cells may form part of the puzzle. Results from the feasibility study are now in the final stages of statistical analysis and a manuscript for publication is being prepared.