Press release 25 March 2015:

A Metabolic imbalance increases the risk of respiratory diseases in childhood

Leipzig. An imbalance in our metabolism can trigger inflammatory processes in the body and activate the immune system. In a recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, UFZ researchers have been able to show that this applies even to newborns and children under one year of age, and is correlated with the development of respiratory diseases in early childhood.

Medical consultation. Photo: André Künzelmann/ UFZ

The metabolism influences the manifestation of respiratory diseases. This was shown in analyses involving newborns and infants conducted as part of the large-scale mother-child study (LiNA), following the medical and environmental development of more than 620 children until they turned 18.
Photo: André Künzelmann/ UFZ


If pathogenic agents penetrate our body, our immune system is put on high alert. The body reacts with inflammatory processes, initiating a whole series of defence mechanisms - with the aim of quickly and effectively incapacitating the undesirable intruders. However, on occasion, an alteration in metabolic balance can be the trigger for an inflammatory immune response. In such cases, forces are mobilised to combat an enemy that does not actually exist.

"We wanted to find out whether this phenomenon is present among newborns and children under one year of age," says UFZ Researcher Dr. Gunda Herberth. Her study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology is part of the so-called "LiNA Study", which examines sensitive phases of a child's development with a focus on lifestyle, environmental factors and the subsequent appearance of allergies and respiratory diseases.

Dr. Herberth and her colleagues examined blood samples from newborns (cord blood) and children under one year of age for any possible correlation between metabolites and immune parameters – and made a discovery: Elevated concentrations of specific sugars - known as hexoses - in the blood were accompanied by elevated concentrations of inflammatory immune parameters. Conversely, a high concentration of other metabolites, such as protein components (amino acids) or degradation products of certain fats inhibited the development of inflammatory parameters.

"Increased concentrations of sugars in the blood therefore do actually lead to the development of an inflammatory immune response, even in newborns. In turn, this is directly correlated with the development of respiratory diseases in early childhood," explains Dr. Herberth. In-vitro tests carried out by the researchers have confirmed the findings of her epidemiological investigation: In cell cultures, immune cells exposed to hexoses showed elevated concentrations of inflammatory parameters, while those exposed to amino acids inhibited the production of inflammatory components. Dr. Herberth commented: "As certain amino acids can obviously also provide protection from inflammation, we assume that the balance between the metabolites is primarily responsible for the development of inflammatory processes."

So in subsequent investigations, the UFZ researchers are aiming to determine the reason for this kind of change in the concentration of metabolites in the blood: "In addition to diet, environmental pollutants also undoubtedly play a decisive role," stated Dr. Herberth. "For example, we know that plasticisers can impair our metabolism. Precisely how and where they disrupt our metabolic pathways – and depending on the degree, with far-reaching consequences – will be the focus of our future research."


Endogenous metabolites and inflammasome activity in early childhood and links to respiratory diseases
Gunda Herberth, Kirsten Offenberg, Ulrike Rolle-Kampczyk, Mario Bauer, Wolfgang Otto, Stefan Röder, Konrad Grützmann, Ulrich Sack, Jan-Christoph Simon, Michael Borte, Martin von Bergen, Irina Lehmann, for the LINA Study Group DOI:

The investigations of the LiNA Study were supported the Helmholtz Association.

Further information:

Dr. Gunda Herberth, Dr. Irina Lehmann
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Department Environmental Immunology
Phone: +49-(0)341-235-1547,

or via

Tilo Arnhold, Susanne Hufe (UFZ press office)
Phone: +49-(0)341-235-1635, -1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, biodiversity, the consequences of climate change and possible adaptation strategies, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, bio-energy, the effects of chemicals in the environment and the way they influence health, modelling and social-scientific issues. Its guiding principle: Our research contributes to the sustainable use of natural resources and helps to provide long-term protection for these vital assets in the face of global change. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the federal government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major and urgent issues in society, science and industry through scientific excellence in six research areas: Energy, earth and environment, health, key technologies, structure of matter as well as aviation, aerospace and transportation. The Helmholtz Association is the largest scientific organisation in Germany, with 35,000 employees in 18 research centres and an annual budget of around €3.8 billion. Its work is carried out in the tradition of the great natural scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894).