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Breast milk–mediated transfer of an antigen induces tolerance and protection from allergic asthma

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Allergic asthma is a chronic disease characterized by airway obstruction in response to allergen exposure. It results from an inappropriate T helper type 2 response to environmental airborne antigens and affects 300 million individuals1. Its prevalence has increased markedly in recent decades, most probably as a result of changes in environmental factors2. Exposure to environmental antigens during infancy is crucial to the development of asthma3. Epidemiological studies on the relationship between breastfeeding and allergic diseases have reached conflicting results4,5,6,7,8. Here, we have investigated whether the exposure of lactating mice to an airborne allergen affects asthma development in progeny. We found that airborne antigens were efficiently transferred from the mother to the neonate through milk and that tolerance induction did not require the transfer of immunoglobulins. Breastfeeding-induced tolerance relied on the presence of transforming growth factor (TGF)-β during lactation, was mediated by regulatory CD4+ T lymphocytes and depended on TGF-β signaling in T cells. In conclusion, breast milk–mediated transfer of an antigen to the neonate resulted in oral tolerance induction leading to antigen-specific protection from allergic airway disease. This study may pave the way for the design of new strategies to prevent the development of allergic diseases.

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Figure 1: AHR and airway inflammation in mice breastfed by OVA-exposed mothers.
Figure 2: Immunoglobulin and T cell responses in mice breastfed by OVA-exposed mothers.
Figure 3: Breast milk factors involved in breastfeeding-induced tolerance.
Figure 4: Treg cells in mice breastfed by OVA-exposed mothers.

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  • 29 January 2008

    In the version of this article initially published online, the affiliation numbers were incorrectly assigned. Each institution now has its own affilation number. The errors have been corrected for all versions of the article.


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We thank F. Powrie (University of Oxford) for D0.11.10 TCR transgenic mice and P.J. Lucas (US National Institutes of Health) for TGF-β DNRII mice. We thank F. Aguila for his help with figures and N. Guy and the animal facility staff for their excellent animal care. This work was supported by a grant from the Fondation Pour la Recherche Médicale (to V.J.) and by a grant from the European Union (DC-THERA) (to N.G.). V.V. was sponsored by fellowships from the Fondation Pour la Recherche Médicale, the US Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Belgian Fond National de la Recherche Scientifique.

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Correspondence to Valérie Verhasselt or Valérie Julia.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–6, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Methods (PDF 213 kb)

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Verhasselt, V., Milcent, V., Cazareth, J. et al. Breast milk–mediated transfer of an antigen induces tolerance and protection from allergic asthma. Nat Med 14, 170–175 (2008).

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