BACKGROUND: Cow milk allergy (CMA) is one of the most common food allergies in childhood. Patients with CMA present with a wide range of immunoglobulin (Ig)E- and non-IgE-mediated clinical syndromes. Limited information is known about the specific humoral and cellular responses to cow milk proteins in these various forms of CMA. OBJECTIVE: The aim of the study was to determine IgE, IgA, IgG1 and IgG4 antibody levels and lymphocyte proliferative responses to the major cow milk allergens in patients with IgE- and non-IgE-mediated CMA. METHODS: One hundred and forty cow milk allergic patients, 6 months to 22 years of age, were included in the study. One hundred and thirteen patients had IgE-mediated CMA, 11 had milk protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome and 16 had allergic eosinophilic gastroenteritis. Twenty-one patients without food allergy, 8 months to 18 years of age, served as controls. Serum IgE, IgA, IgG1 and IgG4 antibodies to alpha-, beta-, and kappa-casein, alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays. For a subset of these patients, we performed lymphocyte proliferation assays to the various milk allergens. RESULTS: Patients with IgE-mediated CMA had higher specific IgE concentrations to casein compared with whey proteins (P < 0.001). In this group of patients, there was a positive correlation between IgE levels and levels of the other isotypes for all four milk proteins (P < 0.001). In general, the caseins were the more allergenic and antigenic proteins in all groups of patients. Patients with enterocolitis syndrome produced less milk protein-specific IgG4 (P < 0.05) and had a trend for higher IgA antibody levels when compared to the control group. Lymphocyte proliferative responses in all groups with CMA were significantly higher than controls (P < 0.05), although this response was similar in patients with IgE- and non-IgE-mediated CMA. CONCLUSION: There is a distinct pattern of humoral antibody response in the different forms of CMA. Patients with IgE-mediated CMA have an elevated polyisotypic response to cow milk protein. The relative lack of specific IgG4 production in patients with enterocolitis syndrome may be involved in the pathogenesis of the disease. In general, caseins appear to be the predominant allergen in patients with CMA.
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