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Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have teamed with the National Farm Medicine Center at Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation to examine how farm environments, especially those with livestock, stimulate stronger immune systems and make children far less likely to develop allergic diseases. The study is part of the five-year Wisconsin Infant Study Cohort (WISC) project. It is being funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the University of Wisconsin Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, and the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) at the University of Minnesota.

The pilot phase was conducted in 2013. It compared immune responses in the cord blood from healthy babies born into farming environments and cord blood from healthy infants born into non-farming environments. 

The second phase is underway, with the enrollment of 200 babies from Wisconsin — half from farms, and the other half from rural non-farm homes. For two years, starting in the womb, researchers will track the children’s exposure to farm animals and farm-related microbes. They will measure the development of cells involved in immunity and resistance to viral respiratory illnesses, and also track respiratory infections and development of allergies. The first two years of life are the most important for immune system development said Dr. James Gern, principal investigator for the University of Wisconsin Asthma and Allergic Diseases Clinical Research Center.  VIDEO: Dr. James Gern discusses WISC., the only rural birth cohort in the nation, in a presentation at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.

Asthma in children is a leading cause of emergency department visits, hospitalizations and missed school days. Asthma is a reversible obstructive lung disease, caused by increased reaction of the airways to various stimuli. It can be life-threatening if not properly managed. Asthma affects an estimated 7.1 million children under 18 years of age; of which approximately 4.1 million suffered from an asthma attack or episode in the past year.

Great advancements have been made in the treatment of asthma, but there’s been little progress in preventing the illness in the first place.

“If we can identify the key microbial exposures on farms, then we would want to offer it to non-farm kids,” said Casper Bendixsen, Ph.D., NFMC principal investigator for WISC.

For more information on the project, call 1-888-512-5488.