Do Old Order Mennonites Hold the Key to Understanding Food Allergies?

Nov. 13, 2017

The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) is embarking on a $2.4 million study focused on a population that is virtually immune to food allergies: the Old Order Mennonite Community.

Fewer than 1 percent of Old Order Mennonites have food allergies, asthma, and other allergic diseases, which researchers believe is the result of several significant lifestyle differences from the general population. Overall, 1 in 13 American children — about 8 percent — develop a food allergy.

The study, led by Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo, M.D., Ph.D, associate professor of Pediatric Allergy/Immunology, will compare immune system development in Old Order Mennonite infants with that of infants who are considered high-risk for developing a food allergy.

old order mennonites

“Individuals in the Old Order Mennonite community live on farms, avoid antibiotics, and deliver their babies at home — and as a result, they are exposed to a variety of bacteria that those living in the city or suburbs don’t come into contact with,” said Jarvinen-Seppo. “We believe that differences in lifestyles between these two groups affects how their immune systems develop and as a result, their susceptibility to food allergies.”

The five-year initiative, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will determine whether the accelerated development of a specific antibody in the immune system is associated with protection from food allergies. Broadly, the work dovetails with the ubiquitous “hygiene hypothesis,” which posits that children who grow up in a super-clean environment aren’t exposed to the microorganisms that would stimulate their immune system to develop natural tolerances for certain substances.

“With more than 15 million Americans suffering from food allergies — including 1 in 13 children — the need for further research is critical,” said Jarvinen-Seppo. “Studying the development of the immune system in a population that is ‘protected’ from allergies will lay the groundwork for future studies. To be able to create new therapies for food allergies, we must first understand why infants’ immune systems respond the way they do.”

URMC is recruiting 80 mothers and their infants prenatally or soon after birth for the study. Researchers are enrolling infants who are born to families with a parent or older sibling with allergic diseases — especially food allergies — who reside in the Greater Rochester area. The study is also enrolling 80 mother-infant pairs from the Old Order Mennonite community in Penn Yan.

Participants will complete questionnaires and provide clinical samples for three years. Click here for more information on the study.

URMC to Lead Study on the Protective Properties of Breastmilk

In a separate study, URMC will also serve as the coordinating center for a multi-site project supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

The initiative will explore whether breastmilk can offer infants protection from allergies. Researchers will analyze breastmilk samples from different geographical areas of the United States and Finland to determine whether certain antibodies — which fight bacteria, viruses, and toxins — are passed from mothers to infants through breastmilk.

“We were pleased to be selected as the lead research center for this project, and are grateful for the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made it a priority to advance research on the many protective properties of breastmilk,” said Jarvinen-Seppo.

Eight centers are taking part in the project.