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Food Allergy

$74 Million AllerGen Network Aims to Press Ahead with Research

Dr. Malcolm Sears

A group of more than 200 scientists involved for more than 10 years in a major Canadian research effort on allergic disease will receive government funding to continue their work until 2019.

Since 2005, the Canadian government has invested $74.4 million in the AllerGen (Allergy, Genes and Environment) Network, as one among a dozen Networks of Centres of Excellence, to oversee a range of studies.

AllerGen is best known for the high-profile CHILD (Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development) Study, which involves more than 3,300 Canadian infants and their families and is focused on understanding the origins of allergy and asthma. Through it, researchers are making significant discoveries into how early childhood environmental exposures and genetics affect the development of allergies and asthma.

CHILD research highlights so far include a 2015 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) showing evidence that acquiring four key types of gut bacteria in infancy may prevent the later onset of asthma. The UBC team aim ultimately to develop a preventive probiotic.

Another 2015 study from UBC showed that exposure to traffic-related pollution in the first year of life could increase a child’s chances of developing allergies to foods, mold, pets and pests.

Scientists at the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto have conducted research into the practice of routine preventive antibiotic. They found that childbirth by cesarean section vs. natural childbirth and breastfeeding vs. formula feeding alters the composition and diversity of gut bacteria in babies.

The study of the microbiome – the landscape of good and bad bacteria in the human gut – suggests that unnecessary cesarean section deliveries should be avoided, said Dr. Malcolm Sears, co-director of CHILD and an epidemiologist, respiratory specialist and professor of medicine.

Children delivered through the birth canal are exposed to different bacteria than those who are not, which may have an impact on allergic sensitization.

In its most recent work, CHILD researchers examined data from 1,400 infants from the general population not at high risk of allergies to study the impact of the early introduction of peanuts, cow’s milk protein and eggs on food sensitization at age one. In keeping with other current research, they found the risk of food allergy is reduced by early rather than delayed feeding of solid foods.

“Preliminary results of the study support the paradigm shift from delayed food introduction and food avoidance, to earlier introduction to decrease allergic sensitization,” Sears said.

“It is too early yet to know what may eventuate in terms of novel treatments, but there will certainly be recommendations coming regarding early life exposures.”

As the end of the federal funding period draws closer, AllerGen researchers are seeking to line up alternate sources of revenue to develop legacy projects and continue studies aimed at understanding the early-life development of allergies and the best way to manage them.

Researchers also aim to continue the Clinical Investigator Collaborative, which conducts clinical trials on drugs for asthma and allergy management.

Additionally, they intend to mobilize studies conducted by the Canadian Food Allergy Strategic Team (CanFAST) into a national strategy that will share information on diagnosis, treatment and management of food allergies and anaphylaxis to both patients and policymakers.

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