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Special Edition: Immune Support

Immune support: Can fresh thinking on biomarkers and trials bring hope to industry claims?

By Nathan Gray+

18-Oct-2012

Putting together a winning health claim dossier to EFSA has been a challenge for those in the immune support arena, but could new biomarkers and testing developments mean there is light at the end of the tunnel?

While new technologies are increasing knowledge at the cutting edge of nutrition and immunology, there is a distinct lack of movement in the substantiation of industry’s current claims for immune support.

Such health claims, based around nutrition and immune support were at one time seen as a vital part of European industry’s health claims plans. But after a raft of negative opinions from Europe’s food regulator, question marks remain over what scientific evidence is needed to support such claims, warns Professor Philip Calder from the University of Southampton, UK.

Speaking with NutraIngredients, Calder argues that while repeated rejections for immune support claims by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) may be a hard pill for industry to swallow, there may be hope on the horizon.

“From the point of view of industry, it has been an important area, and for some people it continues to be an important area,” said Calder. “But there has, for some people, been a struggle in terms of getting claims substantiated for immune effects.”

“I think maybe some parts of industry have a few question marks now, and may think that it’s just a bit too hard to do at the moment,” he suggested.

While recent times have seen great developments in technologies, that are revolutionising the way basic research into nutrition and immunity is considered, there has been a distinctive lack of joy when it comes to EFSA opinions:

“None of those developments are going to be of any use for somebody who is looking to make a claim on a functional ingredient, for example,” said Calder.

“That poses the question of how are we going to probe the immune system in human studies, in a way that will yield useful information both for our understanding immunonutrition, but also for the support of claims.”

Immune challenges

Calder explained that new methods of testing, and reliable biomarkers for immune functioning, have long been in the sought: “ILSI have been active in looking at and publishing articles on biomarkers of immune function and inflammation.”

In its most recent paper on immune markers (published in 2005) Calder says the ILSI expert group identified experimental approaches that would be the most meaningful for studying the impact of nutrition on the immune system.

“One of these recommendations was based on an immune challenge to a person,” he said. “The sort of thing one could envisage would be to give people a vaccination for example, because the vaccination challenges the immune system and you can look at the responses to that by measuring things in the blood.”

“At the moment, that is as good as we have,” said Calder. However, he suggested that developments in how to best track the immunological effects of foods and food ingredients could provide greater insights.

He noted, however, that studying inflammation could be ‘a little bit more difficult’ than a standard immune challenge.

“Actually, EFSA agree that a reduction in inflammation could be the basis of a health claim – but I don’t think showing changes in the classic markers of inflammation is going to cut it very well.

“In our expert report – which has just been accepted for publication – we talk about inflammatory challenges in an analogous way to talking about immune challenges,” Calder revealed.

“There are particular things you can do that induce an inflammatory response – and you might be interested in dampening that response,” said Calder. “That would be a tool for demonstrating an effect on inflammation.”

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