UMass grad student receives fellowship to study effect of norovirus on food allergies
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $180,000 predoctoral fellowship to a grad student at University of Massachusetts Amherst for allergy and food science research.
Cassandra Suther is a UMass Amherst Food Science PhD candidate planning to conduct research on the effects norovirus can have on the development of food allergies.
In an interview with Healio, Suther discussed her plans for this research.
Healio: In what ways might norovirus reduce the likelihood of someone developing food allergies?
Suther: There might be a few ways that noroviruses can help, and they all stem from this idea of the hygiene hypothesis, which states that a lack of microorganisms leads to reduced immune protection. If norovirus does help, what is interesting about our idea is considering if it is because of a specific reaction from norovirus, or from an infection in general.
Previous research has shown norovirus infections protect mice from developing type 1 diabetes by restoring intestinal morphology and immune function. Other studies have also shown that norovirus has this protective role against bacterial pathogen infections in the gut in mice via decreases in host inflammatory response. So, with that, there's this idea that many types of infections might be able to protect against the development of allergies; however, we think that because the gut is quickly targeted by norovirus, and because food allergies start in the gut, there might be a more direct interaction, like with the bacterial gut microbiome. We think norovirus might also affect the gut microbiome composition in a way to encourage suppression of allergies.
Healio: What do you intend to focus on when researching this topic?
Suther: Specifically, we're looking at two different important time points of food allergies, being the development and the severity of the reaction. We believe that during allergic sensitization or during allergic challenge/reaction, infection with norovirus will lessen both of these. The mechanism as to why might be different between the two as well.
Healio: What are the possible implications of your upcoming research?
Suther: A lack of microorganisms lead to reduced immune protection, so we know that bacteria show a very protective nature when thinking about allergy development. Antibiotics have a negative correlation. When using too many antibiotics in early development, kids have a higher chance of developing allergies in the future. But what isn't widely explored is how viruses come into play. They're a microorganism, so they are part of the hygiene hypothesis as well. It's this idea that maybe enteric viruses might train the immune system just like how bacteria do in early development. Distinguishing the mucosal immunity in the gut between bacteria and enteric viruses is pretty important.
Healio: How do you think this fellowship will affect your future career?
Suther: I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity, of course, to conduct my research at this level in graduate school. It feels like the final level where I need to hone my skills. I'm technically the lead on the project in the grant, so that's exciting. I'm hoping this experience puts my foot in the door as a food allergy and microbiome specialist.
Healio: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Suther: I got the idea for the grant by combining my two labs. I'm getting my PhD in food science at UMass Amherst, with my advisor Matthew D. Moore, PhD. He studies everything norovirus. And then I also work very closely with our collaborator at University of Connecticut Health, Yanjiao Zhou, MD, PhD, who studies the gut microbiome and its effect on allergies.
For more information:
Cassandra Suther can be reached at email@example.com.