Blood cells from the umbilical cord are giving us the best picture yet of markers that predict which infants will develop food allergies. In recent research from Australia, the cord blood cells of infants were used to show that there are some key differences between those children who go on to have food allergies and those who do not. It all comes down to the immune system, and the new information could lead to an early test for predicting food allergies.
The Importance of Cord Blood
The blood from the umbilical cord, the lifeline between mother and child in the womb, is rich in stem cells. These cells are special and can be used to treat a number of health conditions. Stem cells can also be taken from bone marrow samples in a process that is painful and invasive. Because cord blood is readily available and easy to collect after a baby is born, it has become the subject of a lot of research in recent years. Cord blood not only contains stem cells that can help people, but is also full of information about the baby that is just starting to be investigated.
Immune Cells, Cord Blood and Food Allergies
One aspect of that information is the immune system. By looking at the immune cells in cord blood, researchers have found out important information about children who go on to develop food allergies. We know that food allergies involve the immune system reacting to a food protein as if it were a dangerous invader. Investigating the components of a child’s very early immune system is giving us all kinds of information about why this overreaction occurs.
In the most recent study, researchers examined the cord blood of more than 1,000 infants. They looked at the immune cells in the cord blood and then tested the babies one year later for food allergies. One thing they found was that the babies who developed food allergies by year one had more monocytes in their cord blood. A monocyte is a type of immune cell that is involved in attacking pathogens like bacteria or viruses when we get sick. Not only did the children with food allergies have more of these cells, they attacked invaders more aggressively.
The children with food allergies had other differences too. They had fewer T cells in their cord blood. This is a type of immune cell that tones down the response of the immune system to pathogens. They also had more chemicals in their cord blood that signaled inflammation, another sign of an immune system attack. Yet another finding was that in the blood of the children with allergies, the monocytes converted T cells into attack cells
In other words, the cord blood of infants who went on to develop food allergies contained multiple signs of an immune system that is more aggressive. Several different markers in the blood set these children apart from those who did not develop allergies.
Using Cord Blood for Early Detection and Treatment
The results from this new study are exciting. They provide the clearest picture yet of the early differences between people with and without food allergies. What it doesn’t tell us is why some infants have such clear immune system markers in their cord blood. The researchers suggest it may be something the mothers were exposed to that caused the exaggerated immune response.
Also exciting is the fact that this new information from cord blood could give doctors a way to test infants for food allergies. Such early detection could give a child the chance for early treatments that could prevent the development of food allergies or lessen their severity. More work needs to be done to make this a reality, but it may be possible in the future.