The immune system exists to protect the host against pathogenic organisms and highly complex pathways of recognition, response, elimination and memory have evolved in order to fulfil this role. The immune system also acts to ensure tolerance to 'self', to food and other environmental components, and to commensal bacteria. A breakdown in the tolerogenic pathways can also lead to inflammatory diseases. The prevalence of inflammatory diseases, including atopic disorders, has increased over the last 60 years. The development of tolerance is the result of active immune mechanisms and both development and maintenance of tolerance are lifelong processes which start very early in life, even prenatally. Profound immunologic changes occur during pregnancy, involving a polarization of T helper (Th) cells towards a dominance of Th2 and regulatory T cell effector responses in both mother and fetus. This situation is important to maintain pregnancy through avoidance of the rejection of the immunologically incompatible fetus. During the third trimester of human pregnancy, fetal T cells are able to mount antigen-specific responses to environmental and food-derived antigens and antigen-specific T cells are detectable in cord blood in virtually all newborns indicating in utero sensitization. If the neonatal immune system is not able to down-regulate the pre-existing Th2 dominance effectively then an allergic phenotype may develop. Changes occur at, and soon after, birth in order that the immune system of the neonate becomes competent and functional and that the gut becomes colonized with bacteria. Exposure to bacteria during birth and from the mother's skin and the provision of immunologic factors in breast milk are amongst the key events that promote maturation of the infant's gut and gut-associated and systemic immune systems. The introduction of formula and of solid foods exposes the infant to novel food antigens and also affects the gut flora. Nutrition may be the source of antigens to which the immune system must become tolerant, provide factors, including nutrients, that themselves might modulate immune maturation and responses, and provide factors that influence intestinal flora, which in turn will affect antigen exposure, immune maturation and immune responses. Through these mechanisms it is possible that nutrition early in life might affect later immune competence, the ability to mount an appropriate immune response upon infection, the ability to develop a tolerogenic response to 'self' and to benign environmental antigens, and the development of immunologic disorders. A Workshop held in February 2006 considered recent findings in the areas of oral tolerance, routes of sensitization to allergens and factors affecting the development of atopic disease; factors influencing the maturation of dendritic cells and the development of regulatory T cells; the influence of gut microflora on immunity, allergic sensitization and infectious disease; the role of nutrition in preventing necrotizing enterocolitis in an animal model of preterm birth; and the role of PUFA of different classes in influencing immune responses and in shaping the development of atopic disease. This report summarizes the content of the lectures and the subsequent discussions.
British Journal of Nutrition, 2006, Vol 96, Issue 4, p. 774-790