Cite this as: J. P. McFadden, R. J. Dearman, J. M. L. White, D. A. Basketter and I. Kimber, Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 2011 (41) 327–337.
One explanation for the striking increase in atopic disease in developed countries over the last 50 years has been the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’; a reduced exposure to pathogenic microorganisms. We have postulated previously that oral and cutaneous exposure to chemicals generally and to haptens in particular, may have also contributed to the increased prevalence of atopic disease; the ‘Hapten-Atopy Hypothesis’. The purpose here is to extend further that hypothesis by consideration of the impact interplay between the innate and adaptive immune systems may have on the development of atopic allergy. It is clear that experimental cutaneous exposure to hapten can generate immune responses of different types with regard to T-helper (Th) cell phenotype. Allergic contact dermatitis is frequently associated with a selective Th1 (and Tc1)-driven inflammation, whereas atopic dermatitis is characterized by preferential Th2 cell responses. We postulate here that initial innate immune responses to chemical haptens result in the promotion of Th1 cell responses secondary to stimulation of Toll-like receptor. However, we argue also that under conditions where there is prolonged skin exposure to hapten there will be a shift of Th cell phenotype to selective Th2-type responses. The significance of such interactions is the possibility that repeated low-level skin exposure to certain types of hapten may result in the creation of an immunological environment in which the development of Th2 immune responses to third party antigens is favoured. The hypothesis is advanced that the nature and conditions of skin exposure to common haptens may impact on the quality of cutaneous immune responses such that in some circumstances the development atopic disease is favoured.