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Institute for Animal Health scientist scoops research award

Industry recognition and patent follow progress on poultry vaccines.

22 November 2010

It's turning out to be quite a year for Erica Bickerton. The final year PhD student based at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH, Compton Laboratory), an Institute of BBSRC, has made major progress in her work on vaccines for poultry; it's work that has led to her first post-doc appointment, a patent application and the British Poultry Council (BPC) 2010 Scholarship Award, which will be presented to her, along with a cheque for £1000, at the House of Commons on December 7.

"I was very excited to find out that I have been selected for the BPC scholarship award," says Bickerton. "I feel honoured that my work has been recognised as being of value to the poultry industry."

Erica Bickerton

Erica Bickerton

Bickerton and colleagues have been working on vaccines for avian infectious bronchitis virus (IBV). The highly infectious pathogen causes a disease which primarily affects the respiratory tract, but can also affect the kidney and reproductive systems of chickens. According to a 2005 Defra study (ref 1), IBV costs the UK economy nearly £19M per year mainly due to loss of egg production. Furthermore, it has serious animal welfare implications and control costs constitute another £5M per year in the UK.

Present vaccines need to be grown in live eggs and are based on a virus that activates a strong immune response. By swapping spike-like projections that the virus uses to enter and infect cells between different viral strains, Bickerton managed to grow the virus particles in mammalian and other cell cultures, not just chicken cells or eggs.

The next step is to find a strain of the virus that grows in cell cultures but also elicits a strong immune response, something the present cell culture derived strains are missing. "By combining this virus with a vaccine virus strain we may be able to generate a new vaccine virus that is effective as a vaccine and able to grow in a cell line," she says.

Confocal micrograph of IBV-infected tracheal organ cultures, Image: Helena Maier/IAH

Confocal micrograph of IBV-infected tracheal organ cultures. Image: Helena Maier/IAH

The approach has been patented and licensed to multi-national pharma company Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health for research evaluation of this vaccine manufacture technology.

"There are a number of benefits to the vaccine industry," says Bickerton. "Our approach may enable the growth of large amounts of virus in a controlled commercial cell culture system -reducing manufacturing costs and dependence on a large supply of eggs." She adds that by not using eggs, the risk of cross contamination with novel chicken viruses that may be transferred from the hen to the egg is also removed.

Following four years at IAH as a PhD student funded by BBSRC, Bickerton's work will continue in IAH's coronavirus group and is now supported by a BBSRC Follow on Fund.

The BPC award, on top of a stellar start to an academic career, is cause for celebration. However, the day after her trip to Westminster is the day of her PhD viva - a final examination where she may be called upon to mount a defence of her thesis. "The awards ceremony will be a welcome distraction from the nerves!"


  1. Economic assessment of livestock diseases in Great Britain 2000-2002 (Defra) (external link)


Arran Frood

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