ImmunoGarden – playing in the sandbox provides armour for immune system

Your environment can be geared towards disease prevention. ImmunoGarden produces organic gardening and landscaping materials that support the immune system in both children and adults.

There are more than 80 currently known immune-mediated diseases, with one in five people suffering from them globally. The reason for the globally increasing incidence of immune-mediated diseases is the diminishing contact between humans, nature and the agricultural environment.

Agriculture and forestry generate side streams with an extremely diverse microbial community. Such a community cannot be cultured in laboratory conditions, and its growth is slow and nearly inactive. However, research indicates that this complex microbial community supports the modulation of immune system. ImmunoGarden utilises this community as part of gardening and landscaping materials.

“What makes this innovation one of a kind is that the products make use of the side streams of agriculture and forestry, and the previously untapped natural microbial community unique to them,” says Aki Sinkkonen, the docent heading the project. 

ImmunoGarden is an investment in future generations

Natural environments provide the opportunity for direct microbial contact, enabling the modulation of immune responses. Research has proven that the hyper-sanitary conditions of those living in urban environments and antibiotics use in general increase the prevalence of immune-mediated diseases. 

ImmunoGarden is a natural solution to the problems of immune-mediated diseases in urban inhabitants. 

“The project’s vision is for city dwellers to use gardening and landscaping materials that contain a microbial community from the forest environment, which will prevent immune-mediated diseases and transform their environment into one that prevents diseases,” says Marja Roslund, a doctoral student and product developer. 

ImmunoGarden decreases the risk of immune-mediated diseases, such as allergy, asthma and type 1 diabetes. ImmunoGarden is an investment in both the future of children and the improvement of immune system in adults. In addition, it will create significant savings for society in the form of diminishing healthcare costs. 

What causes immune-mediated diseases?

Before the Second World War, the prevalence of the natural microbiome was such that the natural microbial communities were extremely diverse, and therefore human immune system was accustomed to screening it to weed out harmful microbes. Today, our immune system comes face to face with natural microbes increasingly rarely, making it combat pollen and other harmless particles by mistake. This results, among other things, in allergies. 

Even more alarming is the phenomenon of our immune system identifying our own cells as dangerous and then attacking them. If the immune system attacks, for example, cells producing insulin in the pancreas, the result is type 1 diabetes.

Furthermore, immune system can attack microbes essential to our body, which may cause, for example, irritable bowel syndrome. 

That is to say, an unbalanced immune system is no longer able to distinguish between beneficial and harmful particles, cells or cell products, or between those innate or foreign to the body, potentially resulting in immune-mediated diseases or allergies.

Probiotics ineffective against immune-mediated disorders

Probiotics have proven to be a remarkable discovery: they are safe and rapidly growing bacterial strains cultured in laboratories and beneficial to humans in, among other things, the prevention and treatment of diarrhoea. However, meta-analyses have found that they have no effect against immune-mediated diseases. Furthermore, these bacterial strains are not very diverse. With the organic ImmunoGarden method, a significantly greater efficacy in the prevention of immune-mediated diseases can be achieved.

Previously, the method of desensitisation was developed for treating allergies, but it usually takes long and focuses on only one allergy at a time, not improving the general state of immune system unlike the organic ImmunoGarden method.   

Regular gardening and landscaping products currently available are often based on peat or mineral soil, making their microbial content notably smaller compared to ImmunoGarden materials. Additionally, microbes found in regular products can differ from the strains normally present in our environment. And regular sandbox sand has no health effects linked with the immune system. 

Playing with sand at day care supports immune system

Three different proofs of concept are under development in the project: 

  • Growth media for gardens 
  • Mineral soil materials, such as sanbox sand, gravelling sand and macadam 
  • Transferable lawn 

First tests on the immunomodular product have already been carried out, identifying it as effective and safe. A pilot test verified its safety, and a scientific article was published on the topic. The researchers found that already a very small sample size achieved the desired result in blood. In other words, the regulation of the immune system improved. Analysis of an equivalent trial on a larger scale is currently being carried out. 

In addition, a sandbox experiment was conducted in spring 2018 in the city of Lahti, where certain day care centres were provided ImmunoGarden sand, others a placebo product. The microbial and blood samples taken from children in day care are being analysed, with results expected in 2019.

Safety is founded on research

The safety of the innovation is of overriding importance, which is why the researchers sequenced the samples to eliminate potential pathogens from the product. Normal day care centre yards usually contain pathogens transmitted by people. Compared to the norm, ImmunoGarden is a significantly safer option, since the natural diversity of microflora is proven to impede pathogens’ success.

ImmunoGarden combines expertise in environmental ecology and medical science, making it possible to provide the environment with the capacity to prevent diseases. The latest and increasingly precise research methods, such as sequencing a microbiome to the level of individual species, have been utilised in the project.  

ImmunoGarden was born out of cooperation

The heads of the ImmunoGarden project, Docent Aki Sinkkonen and Doctoral student Marja Roslund from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, are also among the inventors of the innovation. Roslund is in charge of product development. 

PhD Nan Hui is responsible for matters related to the commercialisation of the innovation. The Tampere University of Technology is participating in the planning of pilot study targets. Testing of transferable lawn is under way in cooperation with Lecturer Outi Tahvonen from the Häme University of Applied Sciences. Funding for the ImmunoGarden project was granted by Business Finland. 

ImmunoGarden is a sub-project of a larger project known as ADELE (Autoimmune Defense and Living Environment), both of which have patents pending. The research was carried out in collaboration with Professor Heikki Hyöty’s group at the University of Tampere and Professor Juho Rajaniemi at the Tampere University of Technology. Postdoctoral Researchers Riikka Puhakka and Mira Grönroos, whose work is partly connected with this innovation, served as members of the ADELE project group.