Exposure to fresh air, plenty of sunlight, and hours of exercise each day are some of the obvious benefits of farm living, but a new study will look at how the dirtier side of farm life may be the real reason why kids who grow up in agricultural environments are far less likely to develop allergic diseases than their more citified counterparts.
Funded by a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and Marshfield Clinic will determine how early exposure to farm animals and farm-related microbes promotes healthy immune development and increased resistance to viral respiratory illnesses in infants.
“Our goal is to better understand how specific bacteria and fungi unique to farm environments promote the kind of immunologic development that limits the severity of childhood allergic diseases and asthma,” says Dr. James Gern, principal investigator for the University of Wisconsin Asthma and Allergic Diseases Clinical Research Center. “Over the years, there have been great advancements made in the treatment of asthma, but very little progress made in preventing the illness in the first place. We hope that our study will eventually lead to the development of new preventive strategies.”
The study will enroll 200 babies from the Marshfield area—half of whom will be from farm families and the other half from rural families who do not live on farms. For two years, researchers will track the children’s exposure to farm animals and farm-related microbes and then measure the development of cells involved in antiviral responses and tolerance.
Dr. Matthew Keifer, director of the National Farm Medicine Center at Marshfield Clinic and a co-investigator on the study, says the research will provide critical insight on how non-disease-causing germs profoundly affect innate immune systems in early life.
“It should come as no surprise that we would study the farmer’s lifestyle, one of the healthiest we know of, to search for ways to improve health in the general population,” Keifer said.
According to the NIAID, viral respiratory illnesses are the most common illnesses in infants and young children and are an important risk factor for the development of childhood asthma, which affects more than seven million kids nationwide.
The research is being funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (grant U19 AI104317), the University of Wisconsin Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (NIH-NCATS grant UL1 TR000427), and the University of Minnesota Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (NIH –NIOSH grant U54 OH010170).