How does food interact with our immune system?

The performance of our immune system can be influenced by what we eat. For example, with a food allergy, there is the clear presence of an undesirable immune response to a certain nutrient. However, there are increasing indications that our food also contains substances which can have a positive influence on immune system function. The IMMUNO-ARRAY project attempts to determine which substances have these effects. This is done not only by studying those for whom an effect is expected, but also by examining as many substances as possible in varying compositions, allowing for observation and analysis of interactions.

Effective vaccination programmes have significantly reduced the occurrence of classical infectious diseases in recent years. On the other hand, an increase has been observed in the number of autoimmune diseases and allergies. These are diseases in which the immune system "makes a mistake", as is the case with psoriasis, asthma and Crohn's disease. The immune system responds defensively to components produced by the body, or to harmless substances in our environment. Additionally, the immune system plays a role in intestinal health and the consequences of obesity, among other factors. It also has an effect on a variety of conditions involving infections, such as cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer's.

Gene expression

The immuno-array study aims a wide-angle lens at how the genes in cells in our immune system respond when they are brought into contact with a certain substance. On a glass slide, 24,000 genes are simultaneously brought into contact with a drop of a nutrient, hormone, or other substance to determine the reaction. If they display activity (gene expression), this is a reason to conduct further research. Thanks to this method, gene expression can be studied much faster than was previously the case. It has also become easier to study not only pure substances which produce an expected effect, but also substances in varying compositions such as those occurring in our daily diets, thus making it possible to determine the influence of certain foods on the immune system.

Less animal testing

Project Leader Harry Wichers explains that the partnership with Kasetsart University is founded on a shared interest in allergies. "Although we did not come up with the array method, our application of it is unique. The advantages of this method compared with previous research methods are that it is less time-consuming, and it requires less testing on animals. However, the greatest advantage is that it makes a larger scale and more complex measurement possible, which can generate effects which 'surprise' you since you weren't looking for them to start with."

Health claims

In future, Immuno-Array is expected to be used to quickly identify the health claims of certain food products with respect to our immune system. The study can also provide patients suffering from autoimmune diseases with an analysis of the effects of certain foods or medications at the same time.