1.5 million euro for research into the causes of allergies in children

UMCG researcher Alexandra Zhernakova has been awarded a Vici grant of 1.5 million euros from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). With this grant, she and her team will spend the next 5 years conducting research to determine the causes of allergies in children.

The causes of allergies are often unknown 

Many children suffer from allergic diseases such as eczema and food allergies. These diseases can have multiple causes, most of which are currently unknown. Zhernakova will now conduct research using data from a large group of mothers and their babies who are part of the Lifelines NEXT cohort. The focus will be on understanding the relationship between the microbiome, the early development of the immune system, genetics, nutrition and the environment of the mothers and babies, and how these factors influence predisposition to allergies. 

Role of the microbiome and environment  

Zhernakova and her team will study the development of the immune system using wide-scale analysis of antibodies – the proteins that our bodies create to recognize and neutralize bacteria, viruses and allergens. They will investigate how the antibodies that babies receive from their mothers through the placenta or breast milk influence the development of the child’s immunity. The team will also identify the compositions of gut and oral microbes, their metabolites and breast milk components and investigate the influence these factors have on the immune system. They will also take into account the environmental and dietary factors. Once key microbes and molecules related to immune stimulation have been identified, the team will follow-up on these findings using in vitro culturing of bacteria and gut-on-a-chip models.  

With this project, Zhernakova aims to uncover the course of allergies in babies and identify specific mechanisms underlying how microbes can influence the predisposition to allergic diseases. 

Building on previous research 

Zhernakova is the scientific leader of Lifelines NEXT, a birth cohort of 1,500 parents and their children extensively followed from pregnancy through the first year of life. For years, her research group has been investigating what factors shape the microbiome in adults and children, how it changes with time, and its relationship with diet, diseases and immunity.  

They have previously identified the composition of a healthy microbiome, how our genes influence the bacteria in the gut and the development of the gut microbiome of babies during the first year of life. This new Vici award will allow Zhernakova to expand and build upon her previous research. 

About the Vici 

Vici is one of the largest scientific grants in the Netherlands and is aimed at advanced researchers, who are free to propose their own research project for funding. Together with the Veni and Vidi grants, Vici funding is part of the NWO Talent Programme. The Vici is intended for highly experienced researchers who have successfully demonstrated their ability to develop their own innovative line of research and their ability to mentor young researchers.