Gut feeling

  • 14/04/1997

As the immune system is designed to distinguish 'self' from 'foreign' and reject the latter, intestinal immunity also has a role in preventing exaggerated immune responses (allergy) by discriminating between the two. For example, touching the leaf of the Japanese sumac tree, used in making lacquer, can cause severe skin rash. This is an allergic response that the human body has evolved to protect itself from lacquer poisoning. However, orally consuming small bits of the sumac leaf over an extended period of time induces immune tole-rance in such a way that the skin no longer develops a rash when exposed to these leaves.

On the other hand, the intestine can also prime the immune system to induce a stronger response. For example, scientists from the Nichinichi Pharma-ceutical Co in Japan have shown that rats fed with a certain type of lactic acid bacteria, have stronger immune systems and can counter the side-effects of anti-cancer drugs such as 5- fu; these drugs tend to suppress the immune system, making cancer patients vulnerable to infectious diseases. The company is now investigating the possibility of developing food products containing the bacteria for people undergoing cancer therapy.

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