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World-class research led by University of Otago researcher Dr Kristin Wickens is opening up new horizons in the prevention of eczema among high-risk infants, showing that probiotic use halves the risk.
Dr Wickens is working with colleagues at the university's Wellington campus and at Auckland, where research has been led by Auckland University paediatrician Prof Ed Mitchell.
The study showed one probiotic, involving a bacterium named Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001, reduced the risk of developing eczema by the age of 2 by about half, among young children who were at high risk of developing allergic disease.
Probiotics are microorganisms that protect their host and prevent disease.
The probiotic found to be successful was developed by Fonterra.
It increases the population of the effective bacterium in the human gut - where it already occur naturally, as it does in yoghurt.
A second probiotic was also tested but proved ineffective.
Dr Wickens, of Otago University's Wellington Asthma Research Group, was "excited" by the "impressive" research finding.
The double-blind, placebo-controlled study, involving 474 infants at risk of allergic disease, was published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
"It would be very nice to see mothers and their babies suffering less because of [the reduced effects of]this disease," she said.
The ongoing Otago-led research has been funded by the Health Research Council and Fonterra .
Further research shows the probiotic also continues to have a protective effect when the children are 4 years old, two years after it was last taken.
Bad eczema was "very hard to treat" and could be a worrying condition for families, sometimes also interfering with sleep.
"The strength of this study and of other studies like it is this is a preventer. It's before the horse has bolted, instead of waiting until they get eczema."
If childhood eczema could be successfully prevented, there could also be wider potential benefits in halting an "allergic march" towards developing other conditions, such as asthma and hay fever, researchers say.
Prof Gerald Tannock, of the Otago microbiology and immunology department in Dunedin, has undertaken bacterial analysis for the Otago-led research.
Some earlier small studies in Finland had shown positive effects of probiotic use in eczema, but the Otago-led research involved a much larger study and was internationally significant, he said.