Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as allergies, asthma, cancer, diabetes and obesity are on the rise. Inflammation and immune dysregulation are common features of these conditions, often associated with environmental and lifestyle risk factors such as dietary patterns, environmental pollutants, microbial patterns and stress. Given the central role of the immune system in the human body, inflammation must be examined as both a common element and target for the prevention of NCDs.
The in-FLAME International Inflammation Network addresses the risk factors, pathways and strategies to overcome the rising propensity for chronic inflammatory disorders and associated immune dysregulation, with a focus on early effects on the developing immune system. It involves nine WUN universities, as well as WUN+ partners from 20 countries around the world. Together the collaborating institutions are working on an integrated program of population studies, biological studies and intervention studies aimed at preventing inflammation and the burden of subsequent disease.
Leading the project is Dr Susan Prescott, an internationally renowned specialist in childhood allergy and immunology from the University of Western Australia. Dr Prescott also works as a Paediatric Allergist and Immunologist at Perth Children’s Hospital and the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia. Her inspiration to study medicine came from her grandmother, one of the few women to study medicine during the 1930s. In April 2015, Dr Prescott published her latest book, Origins: Early-life solutions to the modern health crisis, which reveals how modern environmental change not only increases the risk of early conditions such as allergies, autism and childhood obesity, but also contributes to later life disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and dementia. Dr Prescott’s previous books include The Allergy Epidemic: A Mystery of Modern Life (2011) and The Calling (2013).
“The health of humans is closely linked to the health of the environment. An unhealthy environment in early life can affect us for the rest of our life. There is no doubt that modern lifestyles and environmental change are driving the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, allergy, many cancers and other chronic ‘modern’ diseases. Importantly, we now know that these effects begin from the first moments of life. The early environment shapes our structures, our metabolism, and even our behaviours, in ways that predispose us to disease, sometimes decades later.”
Essentially, the early environment in which we develop—from conception and in utero to infancy and early childhood—can have a long term impact on our health and disease risk later in life. Parental lifestyle, diet, smoking, stress, obesity and exposure to chemicals and toxins, have also been shown to affect the rates of disease. Even ‘cleaner’ living, declining biodiversity and changing patterns of healthy gut bacteria appear to play an important role in the rising rates of these modern diseases.
However, Dr Prescott argues that timely changes to both parents’ and children’s ways of life may reduce the chance of disease and limit its transmission to the next generation.
“The rising disease is not genetic, and we can change—a lot more than we ever thought. Although our genes might determine our individual susceptibility, the increasing risk of modern disease lies with our environment. That means if we improve our environment, we can reduce our risk of disease. But this will be most effective in early life—before unhealthy patterns of biology and behaviour are too established.”
When asked how the early life approach relates to inflammation, Dr Prescott said inflammation is the key element in all chronic diseases and there is evidence to suggest that its effects can begin before birth.
“Allergy in very young infants is the earliest sign that the immune system is highly vulnerable to the modern environment, and that these effects begin before birth. It shares the same risks and will share the same solutions as other modern diseases. To truly overcome the rising rates of modern disease, we must target prevention from the first moments of life, addressing the many modern risk factors shared by so many of these chronic diseases. And promoting early ‘immune health’ is a critical part of reducing the risk of inflammatory disease and promoting healthy development of all organ systems.”
Since its establishment in 2011, the in-FLAME Network has hosted three annual workshops in Southampton, Washington DC and Cape Town. A fourth workshop will take place in Marburg, Germany in June 2015, and will include sessions designed to facilitate current collaborations and stimulate new directions within the network. So far, it has produced over 25 research papers, with more submitted or currently in review. Three international exchanges between PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty have also been facilitated through the network.
Read more about the WUN in-FLAME International Inflammation Network
Order Origins: early-life solutions to the modern health crisis. All proceeds are donated to research.