Author: 13 ON YOUR SIDE Staff

Published: 10:26 AM EDT April 7, 2019

Updated: 10:26 AM EDT April 7, 2019

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Scientists at Michigan State University have linked a common food preservative to an altered immune response that possibly hinders flu vaccines.

Tert-butylhydroquinone, or tBHQ, can be found in several products including cooking oils, frozen meats and processed foods like chips and crackers.

Scientists presented their findings at the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting in Orlando.

“If you get a vaccine, but part of the immune system doesn’t learn to recognize and fight off virus-infected cells, then this can cause the vaccine to be less effective,” said Robert Freeborn, a fourth-year doctoral student who led the study with Cheryl Rockwell, an associate professor in pharmacology and toxicology. “We determined that when tBHQ was introduced through the diet, it affected certain cells that are important in carrying out an appropriate immune response to the flu.”

Freeborn and Rockwell used various flu strains including H1N1 and H3N2. They incorporated tBHQ into the food of mice in an amount comparable to human consumption.

The presence of tBHQ slowed down the initial activation of T cells and their ability to quickly fight the infection. This allowed the virus to run rampant in the mice until the cells are fully activated.

There were several response factors the researchers looked at, including whether T cells showed up, were able to do the right job and ultimately, recognize and remember the invading virus.

A second phase of the study showed the additive hindered the immune system's ability to remember how to respond to the flu virus, particularly when another strain was introduced at another time. This caused a longer recovery and additional weight loss for the mice.

“It’s important for the body to be able to recognize a virus and remember how to effectively fight it off,” Freeborn said. “That’s the whole point of vaccines, to spur this memory and produce immunity. TBHQ seems to impair this process.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.