Nutritional Immunology Lab
The Nutritional Immunology Laboratory conducts basic research in understanding the influence of postnatal diets and dietary factors on immune system development and function. The group has expertise in studying interactions between the gut and systemic immune systems, and how these connections differ when comparing breastfeeding and formula feeding in the first weeks of life.
Laxmi Yeruva, Ph.D., Lab Director
Anne Bowlin, B.S., Research associate
Michael Eledge, B.S., Research Assistant
Clinical & Research Interests
Breastfeeding is known to impart a variety of positive effects on offspring health, including immune system development, and to lower risk for a variety of diseases. Yet, the exact mechanisms underlying these outcomes are not fully known. Research in the Nutritional Immunology group is centered around understanding the early-life events that program gut development, gut microbe ecology and immune function. It is well known that dietary factors in breast milk and formulas can alter gut microbiota composition. However, does the microbiota alone shape gut development and subsequent immune function in infants? And, do breast-fed children have better immune responses to infections?
In order to understand and address these questions, the ACNC has developed a piglet model of infant formula and breast milk feeding. Preliminary data from these studies suggest that gastrointestinal development and gut associated lymphoid tissue are more highly developed with breast milk. Ongoing research seeks to determine the effects of early diet on GI development and function and to what extent these effects are secondary to differences in the gut microbiota, and also immune function at the systemic level. Our research is important because it: (1) Contributes to the scientific evidence base related to breastfeeding, and (2) Is helping understand the fundamental biology of the infant intestinal and immune development, and how gut bacteria influence these processes. Ultimately, these efforts can lead to improved infant formula by adding components that are unique to breast milk or that modify the gut microbiota to help boost the immune system in infants.
My second area of research, conducted in connection with ACNC partner Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), focuses on health-oriented basic and translational studies of immunity. The goals of my study are to understand the factors that predispose patients toward pathologic immune responses following Chlamydia oral and genital infections, to develop biomarkers of disease severity following sexually-transmitted Chlamydia infections, and to translate this research into clinically-relevant prevention and intervention strategies for sexually-transmitted infections. Interestingly, we have learned that Chlamydia can be harbored for many years within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This suggests that learnings from studies of GI immune development, and responses to diet and other factors, may be relevant to infections more typically associated with adulthood.