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Researchers developing advances in testing, vaccine for brucellosis

October 22, 2009

[Source: Jeremy Pelzer, Billings Gazette]

CHEYENNE – The word “brucellosis” probably doesn’t mean much to most hamburger and steak eaters.

Assistant Professor Gerry Andrews shares information with research technician Jessie Spellman while working in his laboratory in the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture.

Assistant Professor Gerry Andrews shares information with research technician Jessie Spellman while working in his laboratory in the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture.

But to many Wyoming cattle ranchers, the name spurs memories of aborted calves, lengthy and complex testing, depopulated herds and lost revenue.

Now, a University of Wyoming researcher is working to combat the brucellosis bacteria by developing an improved vaccine and a fast, simple way to diagnose the disease in animals.

Brucellosis has been a complicated and continuing problem for Wyoming’s livestock industry. The bacteria, which also can be found in elk, bison and other wildlife, causes abortions or stillborn calves and weakens adult animals.

In 2004, the state lost its brucellosis-free status after a herd of cattle near Pinedale became infected, probably from free-roaming elk. That led to costly and complex testing requirements on Wyoming cattle. Even after the state regained its brucellosis-free status in 2006, livestock buyers remained wary of Wyoming cattle.

While there is a brucellosis vaccine for cattle, it isn’t effective on elk or bison. And the only way ranchers can test their cattle for the bacteria is to send blood samples to the state veterinary lab in Laramie.

That’s where Gerry Andrews comes in.

Andrews, an assistant professor of microbiology at UW, leads a team that has isolated three proteins that are produced by brucellosis bacteria. That’s significant, because researchers potentially may use the proteins to trigger the immune systems of brucellosis-prone animals, Andrews said.

“If we could generate a more robust immune response artificially in that animal to key bacterial (proteins), then we can potentially clear infection,” he said.

Andrews and his team are using lab rats to study whether any of the three proteins would be viable vaccine candidates.

If an effective brucellosis vaccine for elk could be developed to complement the existing cattle-only vaccine, that would go a long way in curbing the spread of the bacteria, Andrews said.

“If both populations are immunized, then that would certainly put a lot of folks at ease,” he said.

In addition, UW researchers are also working to create a simple test that can detect the three proteins – and therefore the disease. Instead of sending away cattle blood samples to Laramie for testing – which can take up to three days – ranchers would simply drip a blood sample on a test strip and get results in 15 to 20 minutes, Andrews said.

“Our idea is that we can actually bring the test out into the field rather than bring the (blood) samples back to the lab,” Andrews said.

“The test is a lot simpler, so anyone can do it,” he said. “(And) it’d be a lot cheaper.”

But cattle ranchers might not have access to a new vaccine or test for a while. Andrews has been studying brucellosis since 2005, and he warned it could be several years before his research yields dividends.

However, he said, the process will likely be speeded when UW opens a new, higher security, biological laboratory in about two years. Currently, Andrews and other UW researchers have to travel to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to conduct much of their research.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said ranchers strongly support UW’s work toward developing a better vaccine and test method for brucellosis, as it’s “inevitable” that there will be future outbreaks.

“In my view at least, any long-term answer to the brucellosis problem in this area has to be based on vaccine research,” Magagna said. “While we’ve done a lot to minimize the contact between wildlife – elk in particular – and cattle, we can’t eliminate it, just given the nature of where both animals are. So anything we can do to delay that next case is helpful.”

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