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Scope 49 - Teaching our immune system the necessities of life

2 November 2012

Why a good ‘immune’ education is so important.

It is now widely accepted that allergic diseases such as eczema, asthma, food allergy and hayfever, are mediated by the immune system. The role of the immune system is to defend us from external infections ranging from the tiniest viruses to large parasitic worms. Before it can do so however, like a young child, it needs to be taught right from wrong.

From birth, our body is in constant interaction with its environment, which either supports or attacks it. Newborn infants are protected during this vulnerable period by their mother’s antibodies through breast milk, but as they grow and develop, so too does their own immune system. The thymus is where the immune system receives its initial training before we are born. It is now hypothesised that the gut is where the immune system continues this education, and learns about normal safe environmental bugs and commensal microbes, and what are dangerous pathogens and toxins.

In allergic individuals however, the immune system seems to get this wrong. One theory is that the development of their immune system is suppressed from a lack of childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms and parasites, resulting in the increased incidence of allergy. Whether this is the consequence of the immune system not learning the necessities at the right time of life is unknown. Though it would make sense that by removing the good bugs that help train our immune cells, along with the bad pathogens that cause disease, we are inadvertently interfering with our immune system’s natural education.

Here at the Malaghan Institute, our scientists believe that the key to tackling the growing global epidemic of allergic disease is to re-educate the allergic immune response through the use of vaccines. In this issue of Scope, we update you on our progress.


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