Most anyone having experienced symptoms associated with seasonal or chronic allergies and asthma would agree that they can be quite disruptive. With 50 million Americans suffering from allergies annually, a greater percentage of the population suffers from them than ever before. The prevalence of allergic diseases and asthma have been on the rise in Western countries for the past 50 years and show no signs of stopping. It is estimated that pediatric food allergies alone cost nearly $25 billion annually. The burden to society, and more importantly, children, cannot be understated. The Jarvinen-Seppo Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Golisano Children’s Hospital is committed to gaining a better understanding of how the immune system develops to move toward designing better allergy-preventative strategies.
One of the largest projects in the lab is doing so through a prospective study comparing pregnant mothers and their children from Rochester, New York, with those from a community of Older Order Mennonites located in Upstate New York. It has been widely demonstrated in European birth cohort studies that growing up in a farm environment is protective against the development of allergies and asthma, with farm children and adults having drastically lower rates of atopic disease than non-farm controls. Likewise, the Old Order Mennonites practice a traditional farming lifestyle, and it has recently been confirmed by the research team I work with that they have significantly lower rates of allergic diseases compared to the general United States population. It is hypothesized that healthy immune system development occurs most effectively in the presence of certain early-life environmental, lifestyle, and microbial exposures – all of which our Western society has unknowingly encroached upon.
With such a low risk for allergic diseases, the Old Order Mennonite population provides an opportunity to study how an immune system not fated for such burdens develops. Through studying differences in their lifestyle factors, environmental exposures, immunomodulatory factors within breast milk, and gut microbiome composition, the lab hopes to learn more about the many intricacies of healthy immune system development.