How Farm Exposure Impacts Children’s Respiratory Health

Renewed support from the National Institutes of Health will enable Department of Pediatrics faculty to continue collaborative research into how early farm exposure may reduce respiratory viral illnesses and the risk of allergies, diseases that originate in infancy and can affect the entire life course, in children.

The five-year, $6.9M grant, “Viral and Environmental Determinants of Rhinovirus Illness Severity,” led by Principal Investigator James Gern, MD, with Christine Seroogy, MD, Yury Bochkov, PhD, Ann Palmenberg, PhD, and researchers from Marshfield Clinic, builds on research launched in 2013.

Preliminary findings, which were published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed that children in the Marshfield, Wisconsin, area who were born onto dairy farms had reduced rates of respiratory illnesses and allergic rashes—two important risk factors for asthma—than children who never lived on a farm (Related story).

To further understand how farm exposure stimulates immune development and respiratory health, the investigators will perform viral diagnostics on surveillance samples and samples obtained during illnesses. They will also use new technologies and system-based approaches to monitor exposure to microbes, immune development and clinical outcomes.

“We want to determine whether early life exposure to microbes on the farm leads to improved immune development and less respiratory illness,” explains Dr. Gern. “Finding out why farm children are so healthy could lead to new treatment strategies for children who grow up in other environments.”

Expanding Birth Cohort, Including Amish Newborns

The team will leverage the Wisconsin Infant Study Cohort (WISC), the birth cohort of farm and non-farm families established in the original project. Specifically, they will follow WISC participants from age 4 through 8 years to measure trajectories of immune development, and recruit 100 additional newborns (50 from farm families and 50 from non-farm families).

In addition, the team will recruit 50 newborns from Wisconsin’s Amish community, which typically has very low rates of allergic diseases, as a way to further characterize the environmental and immunologic causes of respiratory illnesses in children.

Dr. Seroogy was also recently awarded a three-year Wisconsin Partnership Program Collaborative Health Sciences award to lead a separate project with the enrolled WISC and Amish infants. This project focuses on the role of the household microbial environment and gut microbiome in immune development during the critical first two years of life. Her team will incorporate additional sample analyses, include learners in bioinformatics and chemistry, and conduct interviews to assess cultural differences between the study populations. Along with Dr. Gern, co-investigators and collaborators include Irene Ong, PhD, Mark Louden, PhD and Joshua Coon, PhD.

Dr. Seroogy made this aspect of research possible through her long-standing relationship with the Amish community and Dr. James DeLine, the medical director at the La Farge Medical Clinic in La Farge, Wisconsin. In 2015, this relationship culminated in the creation of the Center for Special Children, a facility dedicated to providing care for Amish families.