• fetal;
  • immune responses;
  • PBMC;
  • proliferation;
  • allergen

Blood samples were obtained from fetuses and premature babies (n=51) (15-34 weeks gestation) to determine at what stage the fetal immune system was able to produce a positive proliferative response to common allergens. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PB MC) were stimulated with the mitogen, phytohaemagglutinin (PHA), and the allergens, house dust mite, cat fur. birch tree pollen, β-lactoglobulin, ovalbumin and bee venom (mellitin). Results were expressed as ratios of stimulated to unstimulated 3H thymidine incorporation, and as percent positive responders. There was an increase in proliferation ratio which correlated with increasing gestational age for PHA (p < 0.0001), cat fur (p=0.042), birch pollen (p=0.022) and β-lactoglobulin (p=0, 006). The point in gestation when cells from some individuals began responding to the allergens with a ratio of 2. 0 was at approximately 22 weeks. PBMC proliferative response ratios were higher from samples from babies > 22 weeks gestation compared to < 22 weeks for the mitogen and all allergens, except mellitin. There was also a greater proportion of positive responders from samples > 22 weeks compared to < 22 weeks for the mitogen and all allergens, except mellitin. Maternal exposure to birch pollen, which has a discrete season, was assessed to determine whether exposure had occurred at 22 weeks gestation or beyond. Results showed a higher prolifera tive response in infant cells stimulated with birch pollen (p=0.005) and higher proportion of positive responders (p=0.01) in the group of babies whose mothers had been exposed to hirch pollen beyond 22 weeks, compared to those whose mothers had not been so exposed. These results suggest that in utero fetal exposure to an allergen from around 22 weeks gestation may result in primary sensitisation to that allergen, leading to positive proliferative responses, at birth.