Immune health

The Opportunity

Asian consumers know all about the health challenges of polluted air and crowded cities. The sight of people wearing facemasks on public transport is visible proof of their concern. While governments grapple with the public health issues, consumers are keen to take their own protective measures.

That’s why there’s never been a better time to introduce foods that are scientifically validated to support the immune system. 47% of Chinese adults have expressed concerns about catching incurable diseases through air pollution, while 38% are worried about respiratory diseases. There’s concern about the way antibiotics have been over-used, and their effect on immune defence systems.

The rising incidence of lifestyle diseases, escalating healthcare costs and positive word-of-mouth messages from opinion leaders have led to increased consumption of food and beverage products with immune health ingredients. New Zealand companies have the opportunity to seize a market-leading position in this area. 


Research aims

Diet, antibiotic use and stress are known to alter gut microbiota composition, leading to reduced immune defence against respiratory tract infection. In addition, the significant rise in the ageing population that is susceptible to poor respiratory health is of major concern, and air pollution has become a major health threat. This research programme seeks to demonstrate the beneficial effects of New Zealand food and beverage products to build immune defence against influenza and manage pollution driven respiratory inflammation.

It is well known that the gut and respiratory systems are mucosal tissues, and it has been speculated that the mucosal immune system is itself an ‘organ’ in which the mucosal immune cells distributed throughout the body influence different mucosal tissues. Beyond this connection, the gut is the most powerful immunological organ, making it an ideal target for foods that beneficially modulate immune function.

To demonstrate immune modulation in the general population, nutrition-responsive biomarkers that demonstrate clinical relevance and beneficial modulation of immune function will be used. Research will aim to identify the causal relationship between food and beverage products and immune defence against influenza and pollution-driven respiratory inflammation.


Key research elements

Mucosal immunity is maintained by the dynamic crosstalk between epithelial cells, the microbiota and immune responses, which are all fundamental features of immune homeostasis. The Immune Defence research programme will investigate a range of mechanisms that relate to this.

The first objective is to identify mechanisms of action and supporting clincial data for food-based interventions that build immune defences. The negative impact of altered gut microbiota on immune defence against influenza needs to be described sufficiently in order to define the best pre-clinical model for demonstrating food effects.

An exploratory study will also determine whether there is a link between the gut microbiota and vaccine-induced immune defence against influenza. 125 adults will take part in this study. The final stage will be to discover unique host-microbiota associated biomarkers to predict the magnitude of the immune response to vaccination, and identify potential nutrition-responsive gene signatures that can be used to monitor efficacy of food intervention studies.

The second objective revolves around defining the mechanisms of respiratory inflammation exacerbated by pollution. Evidence will be gathered to illustrate that pollution-mediated respiratory inflammation can be modulated by food through single and repeated food interventions (preventative approaches) at a range of acceptable bioactive doses.


Expected outputs

The Immune health programme will leverage existing New Zealand capabilities by developing the cutting-edge tools and methodologies needed to support the creation of food and beverage products with proven immune health claims. Asian consumers will purchase these products seeking to maintain peak performance and success in their daily lives.

By establishing the causal mechanisms that underpin a healthy immune system, this research will provide New Zealand exporters with the opportunity to dominate profitable niches. 


Programme details

High-Value Nutrition has allocated $3.5 million to the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research to research the relationship between nutrition and immune defences. The principal investigator is Dr Olivier Gasser, assisted by colleagues at AgResearch, Plant & Food Research and the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand.

Key Scientists will include Prof Roger Hurst, Dr Irene Braithwaite and Prof Richard Beasley, along with emerging researchers Dr Wayne Young, Dr Hazel Poyntz and Dr Odette Shaw.



Olivier Gasser

Dr Olivier Gasser, Team leader at Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, Wellington, New Zealand

Olivier’s research interests lie in the bidirectional communication between the immune system and host metabolism, with a strong emphasis on the gut and its resident microbes. Olivier’s position and research area will ensure the Malaghan Institute’s research efforts will be a key pillar of the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge. He brings much experience in evaluating novel mechanistic aspects of the human immune system that could provide immediate impact to the fields of immune health as it relates to cancer, inflammatory and infectious diseases. Olivier took on the role from Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom, the initial research leader who has joined a research institution overseas.




For more information on research at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, contact our Malaghan Institute Business Manager on our Engage with us page.