A translational approach to determine how our immune health is under breastfeeding influence

Understanding how breastmilk affect our immune health: from growth to allergy, infection and obesity susceptibility

Our research is aimed at understanding how maternal milk affects immune development, education and long term homeostasis. Major objective guiding our work is the identification of factors that could endow breastfeeding with the capacity to prevent allergic and metabolic disease and have long term protective effects on infectious disease.

Project Goals:

Identification of protective and risk factors that are specific to early life period for allergic disease prevention

We have shown that the presence of tiny amounts of house dust mites (HDM) allergen in breast milk can have long-term impact on allergic disease susceptibility. In this project we will search for the HDM protease inhibitors in maternal milk since modulating the function and/or levels of such inhibitors may be a promising strategy to prevent allergies by breastfeeding. We will go further into the identification of the molecular characteristics of HDM protease that make them so special to induce allergy priming through the neonatal gut.

Determine the role of colostrum in early post-natal and adult metabolic and immune homeostasis

Colostrum is produced during the first 2 -3 days after birth by the mammary gland and profoundly differs both qualitatively and quantitatively from mature breast milk. Currently, there is no data on the specific impact of colostrum on major public health issues such as allergy and stunting. In this project we will assess (1) the physiological impact of colostrum on the early development of the gut microbiota, immune regulation, metabolic homeostasis, and their crosstalk in early life (2) the impact of colostrum intake, and its lack, on obesity and allergic disease risk in adulthood and (3) the dietary factors and physiological actors in early life which condition long term health in order to establish a sustainable prevention of obesity and allergy.

Assess whether infant immunization by breastfeeding is possible

Maternal anti-microbial immunoglobulins transfer through milk confers passive immunity to the breastfed child. From our previous experiments conducted in the field of allergic disease prevention, we propose that breastfeeding may also induce antigen-specific immune responses in the breastfed child. In this project we investigate whether the presence of microbial antigens in breastmilk can actively stimulate the immune response in infants. Further research in this direction may lead to novel strategies of early life vaccination, taking advantage of the possibility to stimulate antigen-specific immune responses through breast milk.

For more background information see the suggested readings below.

Suggested readings

Research team leader: Professor Valerie Verhasselt


I am a full time academic in the School of Molecular (UWA). I trained as a Medical Doctor, pursued a specialisation in Internal Medicine and gained a PhD in Immunology from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. In August 2017, I joined the UWA as the first Chair in Human Lactology. For the last 10 years, I have been researching with my team how breastmilk drives immune ontogeny and long term health. My major contribution in the field has been the discovery of the possibility to prevent allergic disease by the transfer of allergens through breastmilk and its underlying mechanisms. I am a very enthusiast person that seeks performing outstanding research in cheerful atmosphere.

How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Requirements specific to this project:

  • Behavioural qualities are a priority to work in our team; in particular, being respectful, trustworthy, responsible, open minded, communicate positively and having a team spirit are essential.
  • Being rigorous, precise, perseverant and a hard worker.

As part of this project the successful PhD applicant will:

  • Perform experiments in mice to test our hypothesis
  • Analyse birth cohorts data including the analysis of content of selected factors in milk
  • Use flow cytometry, cell culture, ELISA and molecular biology techniques to understand mechanisms of action

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an application. Different application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


Domestic students

All domestic students may apply for Research Training Program and University Postgraduate Awards (UPA) scholarships

International students

A range of scholarships are available from international organisations and governments. The full list, organised by country, is available on the Future Students website.

In addition, all international students may apply for International Research Training Program scholarships.

Indigenous students
Indigenous students are encouraged to apply for Indigenous Postgraduate Research Supplementary Scholarships.
Forrest Foundation scholarships
All international and Australian students who wish to study towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at The University of Western Australia may apply for Forrest Scholarships.

External collaborators

  • Dr Donna Geddes, SMS, UWA
  • Dr Josh Milne, SMS, UWA
  • Jessica Metcalfe, UWA
  • Debbie Palmer, Telethon Kids Institute
  • Susan Prescott, Telethon Kids Institute
  • Roslyn Giglia, Telethon Kids Institute
  • Thomas Riley, UWA
  • Mehta Shailhander, Fiona Stanley Hospital
  • Thomas Egwang, Kampala University, Uganda
  • Remy Burcelin, INSERM, France
  • Chrystelle Bonnart, INSERM, France
  • Jon Genuneit, ULM University, Germany