A new study suggests that signature features of an overly active immune system can be detected in the blood of newborn infants. By detecting these features, doctors would be able to determine serious allergic reactions before young children ever come into contact with trigger foods that could result in a life-threatening allergic episode.
A research team led by immunologist Yuxia Zhang of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia studied more than 1,000 newborn babies. They used blood from their umbilical cords in order to profile the immune cells and molecules floating within them. One year later, the children were tested for various food allergies. The team published their findings in the academic journal Science Translational Medicine.
By comparing the results, the team was ultimately able to pinpoint a certain type of immune cell known as a monocyte. This particular immune cell was found to be in higher numbers in the cord blood of children who later developed food allergies.
Monocytes convert themselves into pathogen-fighting cells when they come into contact with an invader. It was found in lab tests that the monocytes of children who developed food allergies were more eager to attack invaders than monocytes from children without allergies. This includes “invaders” that in most cases would be completely harmless.
Scientist Hesman Saey wrote, “Normally, a strong response is good; it means the immune cells are ready to fight bacteria and viruses. But in food-allergic kids, the researchers suspect that such overactive monocytes could keep the immune system in a state of high alert, signaling another kind of immune cell, called a T-cell, to transform and stoke the immune system to react. As a result, these eager-to-fight monocytes provoke a cascade of different molecules and cells to react to normally harmless things like a peanut protein.”
While the study is promising, immune systems are said to be extremely complex, and many different factors are said to be a part of the overall picture. So although this recent study explains some of the development of allergies, it most likely does not paint the entire picture. Other factors involved in the phenomenon of food allergies most likely include genetics, the mother’s diet during pregnancy and the child’s exposure to food.