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March 15, 2023

At UNL, Graduate Scholars Program Funds Research Into a Vexing Problem—Childhood Food Allergies

Morgan Cade performing research at UNL in 2021Morgan Cade is studying how bacteria specially suited for infants' intestinal tracts could help prevent or lessen the severity of food allergies. Here, she is shown performing research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Craig Chandler/UNL)
By Erin Duffy 
More than 5 million children in the United States suffer from food allergies, surveys suggest, requiring parents and children alike to be vigilant about ingesting common foods and ingredients like milk, peanut butter, eggs, and wheat that can trigger uncomfortable and even fatal allergic reactions.  

There are few treatments available, and the prevalence of food allergies in children has only increased over the last few decades.  

Could answers—and potential treatments—lie in babies’ gut bacteria?  

Morgan Cade, a doctoral student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is studying how bacteria specially suited for infants’ intestinal tracts could help prevent or lessen the severity of food allergies.  

Cade’s research is supported by the Graduate Scholars program at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.  

Morgan CadeMorgan Cade
Doctoral students within the University of Nebraska System can now apply for the next round of Graduate Scholars funding. Applications are due March 31. The one-year fellowship, worth up to $25,000, supports research that touches on the development, education, and well-being of young children, prenatal to 8 years old.  

Learn more about the program and eligibility requirements

Past scholars have used the funding to examine a wide range of topics related to early childhood, including health disparities, the early math skills of preschoolers, neuroscience research on primates, and the stress and anxiety felt by mothers of premature babies. 

Cade’s faculty mentor, Amanda Ramer-Tait, is an associate professor of immunology and microbiology in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UNL.  

“Support from the Graduate Scholars program provides scholars with dedicated time for research, builds proposal writing skills, and offers the opportunity to share their research findings with scientists and community members,” she said.  

Cade’s project covers several of her interests: women and children’s health, biology, and emerging research into the importance of the gut microbiome, the microorganisms that live in the gastrointestinal tract and may be linked to immune system function, nutrition, and certain diseases.  

“We're just scratching the surface on what all the microbiome interacts with,” Cade said.  

Infants’ microbiomes are very different from adults, who generally eat a wide and varied diet of meat, vegetables, fruits, and grains. For the first months of their life, babies ingest only breast milk or formula.  

“That really selective diet also will select for a very specific microbiome,” Cade said.  

A specific species of organisms in the infant microbiome called Bifidobacterium infantis (B. Infantis) breaks down certain carbohydrates found in breast milk. The metabolites created through that process have been observed to help educate the immune system, so the immune system appropriately recognizes microbes and different foods and doesn’t react with an inflammatory response—like an allergic reaction.  

Cade’s research involves introducing donated samples of microbes from the infant gut into germ-free mice that she sensitizes to  peanuts. The mice, through their drinking water, will receive the breast milk carbohydrates, mimicking breast milk, and B. infantis to “train” their immune system to not react or react more mildly when a large dose of peanut is administered s. If it works, babies could receive the B. infantis probiotic—which is already on the supplement market and available for purchase—to prevent or lessen the severity  of food allergies.  

Cade focused on peanut allergies because they tend to be the most serious—peanuts are the culprit in 90% of fatal emergency room visits for severe allergic reactions. But the concept could be translated to other food allergy triggers, like dairy or eggs.  

Ramer-Tait said this line of inquiry is important given the prevalence of food allergies.  

“More than 50 million Americans have a food allergy,” she said. “Investigating the links between gut microbes and food allergy paves the way for developing novel interventions for treatment or prevention.” 

The Graduate Scholar fellowship will cover Cade’s student stipend, so the lab she works with can cover materials, mice, and other research costs.  

“This kind of science gets pretty pricey,” Cade said.  

She encouraged other Ph.D. students to apply for the Graduate Scholars program.  

“It’s really fun to be able to not only interact with students here at UNL, but also see research happening at other University of Nebraska campuses,” she said.  

Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.   

Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at    
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