New research reinforces the idea that the absence of certain bacteria in the gut can cause food allergy, a condition that affects millions of people. The study also suggests that replenishing key gut bacteria could offer a way to treat food allergy.
Scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also in Boston, MA, found that babies and children with food allergies are missing certain species of gut bacteria.
When the team gave the missing bacteria to mice, the microbes protected the animals from food allergies.
The researchers also mapped the mouse cell and bacteria interactions behind the protective effect.
They describe their findings in a recent Nature Medicine paper.
Previous studies have reached similar conclusions about the links between gut bacteria and food allergy. However, they did not conduct detailed analyses of the interactions at the cellular level.
“We identified culturable human-origin bacteria that modulate the immune system to become tolerant to food allergens,” says co-senior study author Dr. Lynn Bry, director of the Massachusetts Host-Microbiome Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The findings point to a new way to treat food allergy that uses beneficial bacteria to alter the wiring of the immune system. Rather than targeting any particular food allergen, this method could potentially treat all food allergies in one go.
Such an approach is very different than oral immunotherapy, in which the aim is to raise the threshold of allergic response through tiny, increasing exposures to the relevant food allergen.
“This represents a sea change in our approach to therapeutics for food allergies,” Dr. Bry adds.
Food allergy and gut bacteria
An allergy arises when a person’s immune system has an extreme reaction to a substance that does not typically provoke a response in other people.
The allergic response can range from mild irritation to anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening immune reaction that needs immediate medical attention. Food allergies are among those that can result in anaphylaxis.
A 2018 study on the global prevalence of food allergy suggests that in Western countries at least, the condition affects about 10% of people, being most common among younger children. There is also evidence that developing countries are seeing a rise in food allergy.