Valerie Verhasselt

Professor, Director of the Larsson Rosenquist Centre of research for Immunology and breastfeeding

  • The University of Western Australia (M503), 35 Stirling Highway,

    6009 Perth

    Australia

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Personal profile

Biography

Professor Verhasselt is Director of the Centre of Research for Immunology and Breastfeeding at the Telethon Kids Institute. She has 20 years of experience in translational research on the impacts of breastfeeding on child immune development and health. With her team, she aims to establish the matches and, importantly, the possible mismatches, between what the infant needs for healthy development and the nutrition that they are provided. She aims to reveal what is needed to make breast milk more likely to prevent conditions such as allergy, malaria or growth failure.

She has revolutionized the field of allergy prevention by early oral allergen exposure with a landmark study published in Nature Medicine in 2008. This study contributed to the recent major changes in breastfeeding guidelines for food allergy prevention, co-authored by Prof. Verhasselt (European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology food allergy prevention guidelines). Her creative mind, expertise in immunology of breastfeeding and worldwide collaborations have resulted in the publication of a ground-breaking study on a novel concept for Malaria prevention through natural vaccination via breast milk. Her leadership in clinical studies, that aim to improve child health through early nutrition, is demonstrated in her current study of a birth cohort of 1000 children that investigates the importance of colostrum for growth, allergy and infection prevention. This knowledge will inform changes in clinical practice and drive policy changes, such as increased budgets to community and health services for early breastfeeding support.

Prof. Verhasselt has presented more than 40 invited lectures to international scientific meetings in the last 3 years and engages in regular speaking engagements to local and international meetings of stakeholders in child nutrition. She co-coordinates and lectures at the course “Breastfeeding- A Foundation for Human Health” held at The University of Western Australia. Prof. Verhasselt has authored more than 80 publications, many published in top 1% Journal (Nature Medicine, JAMA Pediatrics, Gut, Lancet Infectious Disease, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology).

Her research receives major financial support by the Larsson Rosenquist Foundation.

Importantly, ethics, respect, generosity and humanity are the drivers of her scientific career.

Roles and responsibilities

Director of the Centre of Research for Immunology and Breastfeeding at UWA and the Telethon Kids Institute 

Coordinates and lectures at the course “Breastfeeding - A Foundation for Human Health” held at The University of Western Australia

Funding overview

Larsson Rosenquist donation

Future Health Research and Innovation Fund

WA Child Research Fund

Previous positions

Tenured reasearcher at INSERM, University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France

Industrial relevance

maternald and/or infant nutrional approach for a long term better health

Research

The identification of protective and risk factors for allergy in early life

Currently, the benefit of breastmilk on allergy prevention lacks evidence. This shows the need to identify which factors in breast milk could be protective and to find strategies to increase their level.

- Can maternal prebiotic supplementation influence breast milk composition to prevent infant allergy? We take advantage of the SYMBA randomised control trial to investigate if modifying the maternal diet with prebiotic fibre supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding creates breastmilk that is more likely to reduce food allergy in offspring. The project will contribute data to inform maternal dietary interventions for allergy prevention in breastfed children. This study will also potentially reinforce the importance of breastfeeding, by highlighting its role in allergy prevention.

- Colostrum deprivation as a major contributor to the burden of food allergy. We provide a new perspective on the role of formula supplements during the first days of life in increasing the risk of food allergy. Studies so far have incriminated newborn exposure to cow’s milk allergens through in-hospital formula supplementation and showed an increased risk of cow’s milk allergy. We propose that newborn’s lack of colostrum plays a causative role in increasing the risk of food allergy upon in-hospital supplementation. In a translational approach, we investigate the need of colostrum for successful oral tolerance induction and prevention of food allergy to any major allergens. Findings of this study may lead to major change in clinical practice including the promotion of antenatally expressed colostrum if supplements are needed and the use of colostrum bioactives that are key for allergy prevention.

Early life determinants of growth and optimal immune regulation of metabolism

Worldwide, half of all newborns are deprived of colostrum due to delayed initiation of breastfeeding and/or formula supplementation during first days of life. We use a mouse model to investigate how the lack of colostrum at birth affects growth and fat (immune) development, including the role of the microbiota(1, 2). We use the ORIGINS birth cohort to examine the relationships between in-hospital formula supplements and impaired growth. Establishing the impact of insufficient colostrum intake on healthy growth will inform the need to invest in strategies to decrease formula supplementation during hospital stays.

The milky way to infectious disease prevention

- Helminth infections affect more than 1 billion people in Low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). We explore how the lack of colostrum intake, a generalised practice in LMIC, influences the development of immune responses that are required to prevent helminth infection. These findings will bring additional evidence to support WHO recommendation for early initiation of breastfeeding.

- Malaria. More than 200 million cases of malaria occur yearly worldwide with the majority in Africa, where infants aged under 5 years account for nearly two thirds of all malaria deaths. This highlights the need for successful strategies of prevention of malaria infection especially in early life. Based on our recent findings on malaria antigen shedding in a small proportion of mothers (3), we  aim to investigate the potential of human milk to naturally vaccinate children against malaria in a large clinical cohort in Uganda.

- COVID-19. About 10% of infants experience severe COVID-19 illness requiring advanced care and many infected children are unidentified carriers, spreading the disease throughout the community. Therefore, protecting this population from infection is essential. We measure the antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 in the breastmilk of infected mothers and non-infected mothers and evaluate their contribution to protect the infant.  Our findings will be important for breastfeeding recommendations and  to instruct the need for maternal vaccination to increase protective immunity through breast milk.  Our findings will also shed light on new perspectives of therapy of infected patients.

Languages

French (mother tongue)
English
Spanish
Dutch

Industry keywords

  • Health

Research expertise keywords

  • breatsfeeding
  • neonatal development
  • immune tolerance
  • allergy
  • growth

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