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£12M funding to tackle devastating livestock and poultry viruses

19 November 2012

  • Over £5.6M to transform the way foot and mouth disease will be controlled in the future
  • Over £6.2M to develop rapid responses to emerging poultry viruses

Two new research projects have been awarded funding to tackle some of the world's most devastating livestock and poultry viruses. The two projects, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), aim to provide novel solutions to combatting the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Virus and emerging poultry viruses.

The grants are part of BBSRC's Strategic Longer and Larger Awards scheme, which give world-leading teams the time and resources to address areas of key strategic importance.

Controlling Foot-and-Mouth Disease Virus (FMDV)

The first collaborative project, "The Molecular Biology of FMDV Replication: Towards New Methods of FMDV Disease Control" has been awarded over £5.6M to transform the way this disease will be controlled in the future. Rising demand for animal products, together with poor harvests (increased animal feed prices), has led to sustainability of food supplies becoming a UK strategic research priority. The health of farm animals is a vital factor in ensuring we meet growing demands for food.

The project will integrate the work of academics at the Pirbright Institute with those from the Universities of St Andrews, Leeds, Edinburgh and Dundee. The researchers will investigate how the virus grows in, and interacts with, cells and harness the knowledge to develop a new generation of more effective vaccines and improve diagnosis.

FMDV causes one of the most economically important viral diseases of domestic livestock including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Since the disease is endemic in many countries, transmission by international travel and trade presents an on-going potential threat to the UK. It is one of the most contagious mammalian viruses and can infect over 70 species of wildlife, greatly increasing the difficulty of disease control - further complicated by the existence of 7 distinct serotypes with thousands of strains of the virus.

New developments in methods of studying the molecular biology of this virus, together with the development of new state-of-the art facilities at the Pirbright Institute, present an exciting opportunity to transform our understanding of how this virus grows in cells, to modify the virus genome and to improve diagnosis - all designed to improve the control of FMDV.

Lead researcher Professor Martin Ryan of the University of St Andrews, said: "One approach will be to alter the virus to make new strains that can infect animals without causing disease. These weakened viruses can prompt an immune response from the infected animal, giving it protection from subsequent infection."

The researchers will also attempt to use knowledge of how the virus grows in cells to make a new type of virus that could only grow in specially designed "helper" cells, meaning the virus couldn't then grow in animals. This would make the use of existing conventional vaccines a much safer process.

Professor Ryan added: "The strength of this project arises from combining the expertise from a multi-disciplinary team and the use of state-of-the art research technologies. Success would stimulate the routine use of vaccine to control FMDV around the globe. This would reduce the global incidence of FMD with enormous economic and social value worldwide."

Professor Terry Jackson, from The Pirbright Institute, said: "One of humanity's biggest challenges in coming years will be to meet a growing demand for food. Animal diseases have a major impact on the productivity of the livestock industry and safeguarding animal welfare will be a major component of maximising food production."

Professor Dave Rowlands and Dr Nic Stonehouse will contribute from the University of Leeds. Professor Rowlands said: "New technologies can now enable academic institutions to work safely with non-infectious forms of the virus. This greatly expands the range of specialised techniques that can be applied to the study of this globally important pathogen"

Tackling Poultry Viruses

Over £6.2M BBSRC funding has been awarded to develop rapid responses to emerging poultry viruses. The funding boost will also help to establish the next generation of poultry virologists, to work in a scientific area where the UK has traditionally been strong.

The 'Developing Rapid Responses to Emerging Virus Infections of Poultry' project will enable the recognition of emerging viruses before widespread infections occur, prepare for the possibility of new subtypes of avian influenza, and help the process of developing better vaccines for poultry and humans.

The research will be led by Dr Michael Skinner, (Imperial College London). It will involve close collaboration between Prof Wendy Barclay (also at Imperial College London), Dr Laurence Tiley, Prof Jim Kaufman and Prof Ian Goodfellow (all at the University of Cambridge) and Prof Steve Goodbourn (St George's, University of London), as well as Prof Venugopal Nair (at The Pirbright Institute), who is a visiting professor at Imperial College London, and Prof Helen Sang at the University of Edinburgh's BBSRC-funded Roslin Institute.

This research will address important scientific challenges to allow better isolation and diagnosis of emerging viruses, as well as faster and better production of vaccines against them. Scientists will study endemic and exotic viruses, in an era when new poultry viruses rapidly cross national and continental boundaries to become global problems.

Dr Michael Skinner, Imperial College London, said: "One area of the research will help us to identify infections early. We are looking for distinct signatures that appear upon infection of cells in the lab. We can use these signatures to create means of detecting new viruses, especially in elite breeder flocks, where the UK and Europe has an important global commercial presence".

Poultry virus research is vital, not only for the protection of an important source of animal protein to feed a growing world population, but also for human health. Poultry virus research enabled the development of the influenza vaccine and the use of interferons as antiviral medicine.

Dr Skinner added: "The study of poultry viruses has made an important contribution to the development of the modern science of virology. We also need to understand the way viruses interact with chicken cells because isolation and diagnosis of viruses is often conducted in eggs or avian cells and some important human vaccines, including those for seasonal and pandemic influenza, are produced in them".

In addition to boosting knowledge, the funding will increase efforts in poultry virology in anticipation of new facilities at The Pirbright Institute and the multi-million pound National Avian Research Facility, which is a collaboration between The Roslin Institute and The Pirbright Institute.

Prof Venugopal Nair said: "This funding will help secure effective capacity and closer working between the UK academic institutions, in advance of the commissioning of new world-class facilities, to enable the study of the world's most devastating poultry viruses."

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .