Asthma and the Infant Microbiome

Microbes in infants during the first month of life may affect immune system, asthma and allergic reactions.

bacteria closeup

Your baby has bugs–beneficial bacteria in the gut–that could be very important to health.

Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) and the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit found that a particular pattern of microbes (bacteria) in one-month-old infants guts was linked to a high risk of asthma and allergies in toddlers.

“If we are to prevent disease development, we need to intervene early,” co-senior author Susan Lunch said in a press release. “Currently, children are typically six or seven years old when they are diagnosed with asthma which has no cure and has to be managed through medication.

“But if the genesis of the disease is visible as a disruption of gut microbiota in the very earliest stages of postnatal life, it raises an exciting question: could we reengineer the community of microbes in at-risk infants to prevent allergic asthma from developing?”

Dr. Lynch is an associate professor of medicine at UCSF.

Research in recent years has tied beneficial microbes in the gut to positive health effects. Environmental exposures like breast-feeding, vaginal births instead of C-sections and the presence of dogs in the household help populate babies’ guts in the first few months of life.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia, led by Christine Cole Johnson, PhD, MPH, previously showed infants with low levels of certain key bacteria were more likely to have early signs of asthma by age one.

Dr. Johnson is co-senior author of the current paper and chair of public health sciences in the Henry Ford Health System.

In previous research, Dr. Johnson and the research team studied children born in and around Detroit. They collected and preserved stool samples. Recently, Drs. Johnson and Lynch teamed up to study the microbes in the stool samples.

The researchers used genetic analysis to map the gut microbes of 130 infants who were about one month old at the time the samples were collected.

They found that babies who were missing certain normal gut bacteria were three times more likely to develop atopy–the tendency to develop allergic disease–and asthma than babies with different populations of gut microbes. This group of babies was also more likely to have high levels of certain fungal species.

Babies with healthy gut microbiomes had a wide range of anti-inflammatory molecules which were absent in the at-risk babies. The researchers also found boy babies were more likely to have gut microbiome deficiencies than girls and babies in households without dogs were also more at risk.

The study was published in the September 2016 issue of Nature Magazine.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

None of the authors reported a conflict of interest.

University of California San Francisco, “Newborn Gut Microbiome Predicts Later Allergy and Asthma, Study Finds”
Nature Medicine, “Neonatal gut microbiota associates with childhood multisensitized atopy and T cell differentiation”
Written by: Beth Greenwood, RN | Medically reviewed by: Dr. Robert Carlson, M.D.