Allergies, asthma and eczema could be "turned off" in babies while they are in the womb by the mother taking a probiotic, Wellington researchers say.
Expectant mothers are being recruited to take part in a trial that will involve taking a probiotic from the first trimester of pregnancy until they finish breastfeeding to see if it leads to allergy-free children.
Today's children - dubbed Generation A - are suffering from rates of asthma, eczema and food allergies that have never been seen before and scientists are yet to figure out what has caused the explosion in developed countries.
Otago University senior paediatrics lecturer Thorsten Stanley hopes the study, which needs 350 women from Wellington and Auckland, will answer some questions and provide a simple prevention.
"We know allergies are common in people who are well off. They're much rarer in poor countries. There's something about lifestyle that seems to be associated with allergies."
Being too clean and throwing the balance of bacteria in the gut out of kilter is one suggestion.
"We're filthy, we're full of bacteria and we're full of fungi," Dr Stanley said. "They're actually really important."
Half the pregnant women will take a capsule of Lactobacillus rhamnosus every day until they stop breastfeeding. The other half will take a placebo.
The children will be followed by researchers until at least their first birthday.
The mother or father must have a history of allergies to take part in the trial, which also involves Auckland University.
The Health Research Council has given researchers $1.2 million.
Fonterra has also contributed a commercially sensitive sum, but more was needed to enable samples to be collected from the babies and tested to analyse any changes in DNA caused by the probiotics, Dr Stanley said.
"If what's happening inside the womb sets how you're going to be for the rest of your life then maybe we can alter that. We believe that by giving this to the mother we can alter the baby's immunity and turn the allergies off by giving it early."
There are also possible benefits for the mother, including lower rates of diabetes and fungal infections in the vagina.
The new study is on the back of similar research done in Wellington and Auckland in 2005, which saw 450 pregnant women take one of two probiotics or a placebo from the last trimester until they finished breastfeeding.
The child was then given the probiotics or placebo mixed with milk until they turned two.
The incidence of eczema was half in the group that took a strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, compared to the other groups. Six years on and the rate was still half, Dr Stanley said.
PROACTIVE WITH PROBIOTICS
Wellington mum Erin Coulter took a probiotic during her third pregnancy hoping to prevent allergies in her daughter.
Her middle child Tom, 2, is allergic to dust mites, pistachios and cashews, and suffers severe eczema.
"He was very grumpy, very irritable, wouldn't sleep very well. He was red and scratching all the time.
"He would scratch himself to the point of bleeding."
She suffers mild eczema, hayfever and asthma, but nothing as severe as Tom does.
She heard about the success of an earlier trial in Wellington and Auckland which saw pregnant women and babies who took Lactobacillus rhamnosus report lower rates of eczema.
Her four-month-old daughter Grace has so far showed no signs of allergies.
Otago University senior paediatrics lecturer Thorsten Stanley said this could be due to the probiotic, but there was no way of knowing for sure.
He would not recommend women go out and buy the probiotic as it had not been proven yet, although it could do no harm.
A probiotic is a type of good bacteria that competes for survival with bad bacteria.
Probiotics occur naturally in many foods, such as yoghurt.
More recently they have been sold in capsule and powder form.
Eating plenty of good bacteria makes it harder for bad bacteria to survive, as they have less food and space.
Probiotics are not a new concept for many cultures – they are particularly prevalent in fermented foods such as German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi.
For more on the trial, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0800 no allergy.
- The Dominion Post