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

Understanding how breastmilk affects our immune health

Our research aims to understand how maternal milk affects immune development, education and long-term homeostasis. The major objective guiding our work is the identification of factors that could give breastfeeding the capacity to prevent allergic and metabolic disease and have long-term protective effects on infectious disease.

We will further identify the molecular characteristics of house dust mite protease that make them special to inducing allergy priming through the neonatal gut. We will also search for the presence of house dust mite 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.

The project will also investigate whether the presence of microbial antigens in breastmilk can actively stimulate the immune response in infants.

We will assess:

  • the physiological impact of colostrum on the early development of the gut microbiota, immune regulation, metabolic homeostasis, and their crosstalk in early life
  • the impact of colostrum intake, and its lack, on obesity and allergic disease risk in adulthood, and,
  • 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.

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

For more background information see the suggested readings below.

Project goals

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

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

Assess whether infant immunisation by breastfeeding is possible

Research team leader: Professor Valerie Verhasselt


I am a full-time academic in UWA’s School of Molecular Sciences. 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 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.

PhD opportunities

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.

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 applicationDifferent application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


External collaborators

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