How can cow’s milk help us to tackle allergies and inflammation?

9 Feb 2018

Dr Niamh Hunt, researcher at DCU and Food for Health Ireland. Image: Garvan Doherty

Dr Niamh Hunt is working with Food for Health Ireland on bioactive proteins in milk to calm allergies and inflammation. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Allergies are no fun. Apart from the symptoms, which range from irritating to life-threatening, they can mean avoiding potential triggers, including common foods and ingredients. But what if we could control the immune system to put the brakes on allergy and damaging inflammation?

That’s what Dr Niamh Hunt is looking to do, and the search has turned up promising proteins in cow’s milk that could do the job.

A researcher at Dublin City University (DCU) and the Food for Health Ireland (FHI) industry-academic consortium, Hunt successfully defended her PhD thesis last week. So, what was her research about?

“The overall focus of Food for Health Ireland is to identify new milk ‘bioactives’ or molecules that have health benefits,” explained Hunt.

“At our group in DCU, we want to identify ingredients from milk that can positively modulate the immune system in order to prevent or treat diseases linked to an unbalanced immune response in the gut, such as food allergies and inflammation, and we are specifically looking for ingredients that could improve infant formula.”

T-cell balance

The goal is to find proteins in milk that can affect a group of immune cells called T-cells. “Different T-cells have different roles and when the T-cells are not balanced, it can result in disease or inflammation,” said Hunt.

“We are searching for food ingredients that can naturally balance all of these cell types in the gut. Restoring the balance in a setting where one type of T-cell is excessively up and another is down can resolve immune disorders such as food allergy and inflammation.”

The DCU group, led by Prof Christine Loscher, looked at hydrolysed proteins isolated from cow’s milk by collaborators at the University of Limerick.

Hunt screened various protein hydrolysates to see whether they affected T-cells in the lab, then confirmed this activity in specific models of allergy and inflammation. Two of them hit the jackpot. “We found two that positively restored the balance of T-cells, and, in models, they could completely remove the symptoms of allergy and inflammation,” she said.

Babies, athletes and the elderly

With the PhD under her belt, Hunt is continuing to work on bioactive proteins to find out more about how they alter the immune system and whether they might even be able to prevent allergies in the first place.

“These functional ingredients could in the future be added to an infant formula to reduce or potentially prevent allergies,” said Hunt.

“This would be hugely beneficial in reducing the occurrence of allergic disease in later life, such as asthma and dermatitis, as food allergy in infancy often marks the beginning of lifelong allergy. Because they tackle inflammation, they could also be added to foods or drinks for athletes to help boost performance or to help people age more healthily. Because they are a food, they can be taken in the diet long-term; there are lots of benefits to this kind of natural ingredient.”

Hunt, who has spoken about her work at Researchfest and Thesis in 3, and has written articles for the National Dairy Council, also won an FHI award for science communication last year.

“I was delighted about that,” she said. “I got the award for science communication the day before I submitted my PhD thesis, so it gave me a nice confidence boost, too.”

STEM confidence

Confidence is one of the key attributes Hunt encourages in young women with an interest in STEM.

She credits her Leaving Cert biology teacher Kathleen Hennelly at Loreto Balbriggan for building her confidence and encouraging her to go on and study science at college. “I always loved science but she made me want a career in science, so I studied genetics and cell biology as an undergrad in DCU,” said Hunt.

“I think you just have to be confident that if you like a subject, it will work out. It won’t always be easy – it’s not supposed to be easy – but trust yourself and it will work out.”

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication