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Keywords:

  • allergy;
  • cytokines;
  • food allergy;
  • infantile atopic dermatitis;
  • probiotics

Summary

Background We recently demonstrated that administration of probiotics resulted in significant clinical improvement in very young children with moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis (AD). The purpose of this study was to determine the underlying immunological effects that are associated with these apparent clinical benefits.

Methods Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were isolated from children (n=53) at baseline and at the end of an 8-week supplementation period during which they received a probiotic (Lactobacillus fermentum PCC™) (n=26) or a placebo (n=27). A further sample was collected at 16 weeks (8 weeks after ceasing the supplement). Cytokine (IL-5, IL-6, IL-10, IL-13, IFN-γ and TNF-α) responses to allergens (egg ovalbumin (OVA), beta lactoglobulin (BLG), house dust mite (HDM)), vaccines (tetanus toxoid (TT)), diphtheria toxoid (DT)), intestinal flora (heat-killed Lactobacillus (HKLB)), heat-killed Staphylococcus aureus (HKSA), Staphylococcus aureus enterotoxin B (SEB) and mitogen (phytohaemaglutinin (PHA)) were compared.

Results The administration of probiotics was associated with a significant increase in T-helper type 1(Th1-type) cytokine IFN-γ responses to PHA and SEB at the end of the supplementation period (week 8: P=0.004 and 0.046) as well as 8 weeks after ceasing supplementation (week 16: P=0.005 and 0.021) relative to baseline levels of response. No significant changes were seen in the placebo group. The increase in IFN-γ responses to SEB was directly proportional to the decrease in the severity of AD (r=−0.445, P=0.026) over the intervention period. At the end of the supplementation period (week 8) children receiving probiotics showed significantly higher TNF-α responses to HKLB (P=0.018) and HKSA (P=0.011) but this was no longer evident when supplementation ceased (week 16). Although IL-13 responses to OVA were significantly reduced in children receiving probiotics after 8 weeks (P=0.008), there were no other effects on allergen-specific responses, and this effect was not sustained after ceasing supplementation (week 16). There were no effects on vaccine-specific responses, or on responses to any of the stimuli assessed.

Conclusion The improvement in AD severity with probiotic treatment was associated with significant increases in the capacity for Th1 IFN-γ responses and altered responses to skin and enteric flora. This effect was still evident 2 months after the supplementation was ceased. The lack of consistent effects on allergen-specific responses suggests that the effects of probiotics may be mediated through other independent pathways, which need to be explored further.