Number of the month: 160 kilometres per hour

"This article was published in our March 2018 newsletter". Sign up here.

When we feel the urge to sneeze, this is our body setting in motion a protective and self-cleaning mechanism which – doctors advise – we should not suppress. This is one way in which the human body seeks to rid itself of germs that could cause disease. The sneeze reflex is usually triggered by viruses, bacteria, insects or foreign particles, or indeed by dust, microorganisms and pollen. This is why people who suffer from asthma, hay fever and certain other allergies will once again be facing a particularly tough period in the upcoming allergy season in the spring.

New ways to prevent allergies

What are the causes of allergies? Who is at particular risk of developing them? These and other questions preoccupy scientists at numerous German universities and research institutions. At the Helmholtz Zentrum München for example, Professor Erika von Mutius is investigating a phenomenon known as the farm effect: "More than 40 studies have shown that children who grow up on farms are less likely than other children to develop asthma and allergies", says the paediatrician and epidemiologist. She runs the Institute of Asthma and Allergy Prevention at Helmholtz Zentrum München. Her research group has identified two possible reasons for the reduced allergy risk: the consumption of raw, unpasteurised milk and spending time in cowsheds.

Based on these insights into the causes of the lower asthma and allergy risk, an intervention study is now to be conducted: "We want to prove that milk in its untreated state has a protective effect not exhibited by conventional, highly processed milk that is associated with a higher incidence of such diseases", explains von Mutius. Because raw milk entails some risk of infection and cannot be used in the trials, the team in Munich cooperates with a Dutch dairy that produces minimally-treated cow milk which is safe from a microbiological perspective and is as close as possible to the original product.

Focusing on milk and microbes

A second research project at Helmholtz Zentrum München is analysing dust in cowsheds. Its goal is to better understand the underlying mechanisms responsible for asthma and allergies and thereby to prevent them from breaking out in the first place. "Together with a team of microbiologists headed by Dr Michael Schloter, we are investigating the protective effect of substances that are released by microorganisms in cowshed dust. By identifying these microbes, we hope to improve preventive measures in future", von Mutius explains. This could also reduce the number of exhausting attacks of sneezing that plague so many people.


Helmholtz Zentrum München

Helmholtz Zentrum München is the German Research Center for Environmental Health. The Institute of Asthma and Allergy Prevention (IAP) is one of its nearly 50 institutes and departments. With its more than 2,300 employees, Helmholtz Zentrum München investigates important common diseases which develop from the interaction of environmental factors, lifestyle and individual genetic background. Allergies are one focus of its work. Researchers are keen to find new methods of prevention, diagnosis and treatment.