Research project obtains nearly seven million to study factors that affect human immune system in early life

The first few months and years of life are crucial to the development of the human immune system. This is an important phase as the immune system can define which diseases individuals might develop later in life. INITIALISE, a joint research project of ten universities, will study which environmental factors and mechanisms modify the human immune system in early life and whether targeted interventions could have a positive impact. The project obtained nearly seven million in funding from Horizon Europe.

Research project obtains nearly seven million to study factors that affect human immune system in early life
Professor Matej Orešič. Image Credit: Photographer/Author- Jasper Mattson, Örebro University

The research project is led from the University of Turku and it is coordinated by Professor Matej Orešič, who is also a group leader in the InFLAMES research flagship at the University of Turku, Finland.

The development of the human immune system starts already in the womb and continues after birth once the child is exposed to numerous bacteria, viruses, and other environmental factors. Exposure is important to the development of the immune system, but this stage of development is not without its risks.

“The first few months and years are a very delicate and vulnerable time. We already know that the development of the human immune system in early life is connected to the risks of several diseases later on, particularly allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes. Yet, the mechanisms of immune imprinting in early life are still poorly understood,” says Professor Matej Orešič.

In a collaboration between ten universities, the INITIALISE project (Inflammation in human early life: targeting impacts on life-course health) will investigate which factors have an impact on the development of the human immune system and what is its significance for people’s health throughout the course of their lives.

A key question is if the immune system be modified so that the risks for different diseases would decrease.    

“Our shared view is that effective early-life interventions targeting the immune system will have a positive impact on life-course health,” says Orešič.

Focus on the impact of chemical exposure

As the immune system starts developing already before birth, the INITIALISE researchers are also interested in the mother’s diet, chemical exposures, and stress during pregnancy. After birth, the intricate interplay of environmental factors and genetics begins and their impact on the development of the immune cells is not yet well understood. In addition, the gut bacteria developed at the beginning of life have an impact on people's health throughout their entire lifespan.

Furthermore, children have to face the chemical load in their environment with a still developing immune system.

“We are going to study how chemicals impact the immune system. Even a small exposure to chemicals can have significant consequences, and this also applies to other factors that shape our immune system. This is due to the fact that in our first few years, we develop and change quickly and constantly,” Orešič explains. 

INITIALISE mobilises clinicians and scientists with diverse and complimentary expertise in immunology, paediatrics, microbiology, and metabolism. In addition, experts in metabolomics and lipidomics, proteomics, genetics, exposome, psychiatry, systems medicine, and bioinformatics participate in the study. 

Project lasts six years

INITIALISE includes eight prospective and longitudinal birth cohort studies, where the researchers follow groups of children for a long period of time to observe the development of immune-mediated diseases.

Towards the end of the research project, the researchers will conduct a clinical pilot study which aims to discover whether the immune system can be “altered” to prevent the development of diseases.

The clinical trial will target the gut microbiome in at-risk children. Our aim is to improve immune status and reduce disease risk.”

Professor Matej Orešič

The INITIALISE project starts at the beginning of 2023 and lasts six years. In addition to the University of Turku, the member organizations include Örebro University (SE), University of Naples Federico II (IT), Karolinska Institute (SE), University Medical Center Groningen (NL), Linköping University (SE), University of Helsinki (FI), University of Florida (US), Spanish National Research Council (ES), and University of Aberdeen (associated partner, UK).

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