Fetomaternal Immunology

Maternal infection and other environmental disturbances in early life can play a decisive role educating the growing immune system. Recent evidence shows that changes affecting pregnancy can tip the balance in determining the likelihood of inflammatory disorders, and can affect immune responses into adulthood. The first “1000 days” in humans have been designated as a pivotal “window of opportunity” for effecting profound change for the development of bodily systems, including appropriate immune functioning with lasting effects throughout lifetime.

Key questions

Parasitic diseases have been common throughout human history, and fall into the category of infections with changing incidence due to increased hygiene and urbanization. Immune processes involved in allergy form part of the type 2 immunity also involved in protecting against toxins and parasites, with parasites, including schistosomes, noted for their ability to downmodulate these immune responses to ensure their survival in hosts. Almost 40 million women of childbearing age are estimated to be infected with schistosomes, representing a significant disease burden, which potentially impacts the likelihood of a successful pregnancy for many of these women; along with a board chance for fetomaternal crosstalk, which could be impacted by the presence of these infections. Our previous studies have shown modified inflammatory outcomes in the circulation and placentas of these infected women and within our new consortium “HelmVit”, we strive to deepen our understanding of such infection-derived disruptions of the immunological crosstalk. Together with partners from Gabon and Benin in Africa, we investigate in large mother-child cohorts. Our pre-clinical work indicates that maternal infection influences not only predisposition towards allergy in offspring, but also drives widespread priming across immune cell subsets that we will continue to explore in detail, particularly in the context of trained immunity in these models as well as in human cohorts.

Current projects in Fetomaternal Immunology and DOHaD:

  • Treatment of helminth infection during pregnancy and its effects on antigen-specific immune responses and disease development in offspring
  • Innate training in the context of transmaternal helminth infection
  • Persistent immune priming via maternal inflammation
  • Regional and infection-specific effects on Vitamin D and immune parameters at birth and their connection to allergic disease
  • The role of maternal cytokines during gestation as a factor in future immune responses