New research from Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research has shown that children born in modern industrialised environments have more responsive immune systems at birth than children from traditional environments.
The findings have been published in the online edition of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
The study compared the function of immune cells (antigen presenting cells) in the cord blood of babies from Perth, Western Australia and those from the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
The work was undertaken in collaboration with researchers from the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research and the UWA School of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Study author Joanne Lisciandro said the finding is both a positive and a negative for a child’s health.
“The immune cells in children born in modern environments are more responsive following stimulation, potentially to infection or allergen” Ms Lisciandro said.
“While that might mean they capable of mounting a good immune response to infection, there is also a greater risk that their immune systems become over reactive and they develop allergic and autoimmune disease.”
Ms Lisciandro said these findings add to the growing body of international evidence around the “hygiene hypothesis” that modern environmental settings have a significant impact on how a child’s immune system develops.
“The mothers in our Papua New Guinean study population experienced very different environmental and lifestyle conditions during pregnancy, including greater exposure to microbes and parasites, as well as differences in other factors such as diet. The incidence of allergic and autoimmune disease in Papua New Guinea is relatively rare,” Ms Lisciandro said.
“We suspect that the newborn’s immune systems have been well primed in the womb and therefore are more likely to mount a normal response to common allergens.
“This body of work adds to the Institute’s focus on identifying the key factors in how the immune system develops so we can find more effective ways to prevent and treat allergic disease.”