High living standards and the life style connected to them
seem to promote the development of autoimmune diseases and
allergic symptoms. This has lead to the assumption that the
immune system begins to overreact to the organism's own
structures or to exogenous non-infectious proteins, i.e.
allergens, when it does not have to work hard enough to
protect the individual from infections.
The European Union
with its Seventh Framework Program has allocated 6 million
euros to the University of Helsinki coordinated DIABIMMUNE
research project for the years 2008-2013 to establish
whether the decrease in the infection load is connected to
type 1 diabetes and the emergence of allergies.
project comprises 12 partners from five countries. The study
will include 7 000 children from Finland, Estonia and
Russian Karelia in northwestern Russia. In each country the
study will follow more than 300 children from birth to their
3rd birthday. In addition, the research will focus on 2 000
children from their third to fifth birthdays.
"Earlier we have studied autoimmune phenomena and allergic
responses in Finnish and Russian Karelian school children.
Now we are to study infants and toddlers in order to yield
new information on the maturation of the immune system and
the interaction between the immune system and the
environment", says Professor Mikael Knip from the University
Based on earlier studies it is known that
the incidence of type 1 diabetes is six times higher and the
prevalence of celiac disease five times higher among Finnish
children than among Russian Karelian children. The HLA gene
variants that predispose people to autoimmune diseases are
however approximately equally common in both populations.
The studies have also revealed that Russian Karelian school
children have helicobacter antibodies as signs of earlier
infections 15 times more often, Toxoplasma antibodies five
times more often, and hepatitis A antibodies 12 times more
often than Finnish children. Karelian children also have
considerably more often antibodies against the Coxsackie B4
virus, belonging to the enterovirus group, than Finnish
"The differences in the frequency of
autoimmune phenomena and allergic responses between Finland
and Russian Karelia cannot be due to genetic causes. High
living standards and the associated life style appear to
promote the development of autoimmune diseases and allergic
responses", Knip says.
The DIABIMMUNE project focuses
for example on the development of the intestinal bacterial
flora after birth and the effect the living environment has
on the composition of the bacterial flora. The research also
studies the effect infections have on the maturation of the
human immune system and the operation of the white blood
cells that regulate immune responses. In addition, the
researchers study whether the protection conferred by
infections against autoimmune and allergic responses is
associated with the overall infection load or due to
specific microbes. The project also examines the effect of
the child's nutrition on the maturation of the immune
system, the intestinal bacterial flora and the occurrence of
"The diseases we are studying are the most
common chronic diseases in children and their impact, both
societal and medical, is vast. We are searching for ways to
stop these diseases from becoming more frequent and to
prevent their development", Knip says.