Diverse microbial exposure - consequences for vaccine development

Bengt Björkstén
Vaccine 2012 June 19, 30 (29): 4336-40
Numerous epidemiological studies suggest that there is an inverse relationship between "immunologically mediated diseases of affluence", such as allergy, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease on one hand and few infections encountered in early childhood, on the other hand. Careful analysis of the epidemiological, clinical and animal studies taken together, however, suggests that the protection is mediated by broad exposure to a wealth of commensal, non-pathogenic microorganisms early in life, rather than by infections. Microbial exposure has little relationship with "hygiene" in the usual meaning of the word and the term "hygiene hypothesis" is therefore misleading. A better term would be "microbial deprivation hypothesis". The suggestion that childhood infections would protect against allergic disease led to unfortunate speculations that vaccinations would increase the risk for allergies and diabetes. Numerous epidemiological studies have therefore been conducted, searching for a possible relationship between various childhood vaccinations on one hand and allergy on the other hand. It is reasonable from these studies to conclude that vaccinations against infectious agents neither significantly increase, nor reduce the likelihood of immunologically mediated diseases. It is established that the postnatal maturation of immune regulation is largely driven by exposure to microbes. Germ free animals manifest excessive immune responses when immunised and they do not develop normal immune regulatory function. The gut is by far the largest source of microbial exposure, as the human gut microbiome contains up to 1014 bacteria, i.e. ten times the number of cells in the human body. Several studies in recent years have shown differences in the composition of the gut microbiota between allergic and non-allergic individuals and between infants living in countries with a low and a high prevalence of immune mediated diseases. The administration of probiotic bacteria to pregnant mothers and postnatal to their infants has immune modulatory effects. So far, however, probiotic bacteria do not seem to significantly enhance immune responses to vaccines. The potential to improve vaccine responses by modifying the gut microbiota in infants and the possibility to employ probiotic bacteria as adjuvants and/or delivery vehicles, is currently explored in several laboratories. Although to date few clinical results have been reported, experimental studies have shown some encouraging results.

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