Science - October 6, 2005

New prof wants to make immunofoods

Wageningen University’s newest chair plans to develop a new kind of functional foods that can help against allergies, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. In his inaugural speech on Thursday 6 October Professor Harry Wichers says that Wageningen UR is already well on the way to developing ‘immunofoods’.

The foods that Wichers, who works for the A&F research institute, is aiming for influence the immune system. Wichers has already shown in previous studies that ingredients in food can reduce allergic reactions in experimental animals. When given extracts from edible mushrooms, mice with a peanut allergy ceased to react to peanuts.

Wichers and his colleagues in the Wageningen Allergy Consortium already have a list of compounds from mushrooms that they think have an effect on the immune system. The compounds act on the cells that tell the immune system when it needs to become active, on the balance between the two types of immune cells and on the production of antibodies.

The compounds are not only likely to be suitable for treating allergies, but also immune infections whereby the person’s own immune system turns against itself. When this happens, the immune cells that fight intruders also take over immune cells that specialise in making antibodies. This is what happens in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

One of Wichers partners, the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, is examining whether the compounds are indeed effective in combating colitis. ‘The results are so promising that we are already fighting over the right to the patent,’ says Wichers with satisfaction.

The professor warns against too high expectations, however. We still need to verify the results with intervention studies. It is not yet clear whether the body actually absorbs the substances, or whether there is consumer interest in immunofoods. What’s more toxicological research must also be done, stresses Wichers. ‘However promising, not every substance is safe: toxicity is a question of dosage.’ / WK

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