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Dr Rachel Owen on parasite diseases in cattle

Finding treatment targets for parasitic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, working with exotic species and advancing novel methods for transcribing the genetic code of animals.

Dr Rachel Owen is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow who specialises in molecular immunology. In this interview, Dr Owen talks about her research to find out how gene activity is regulated in cattle, particularly in the context of parasitic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as highlighting the challenges and rewards of her work.

Could you tell me a bit about your background and your work?

I have a degree in biochemistry from the University of Cardiff. I did a placement in a biopharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, focusing on drug screening and discovery, before moving to the University of Southampton where I did my PhD looking at the immunology of contagious cancers in the Tasmanian devil. At first, I was thinking about a PhD in human cancer and the chance to work with Tasmanian devils caught my eye. My first post-doc continued from that, then I did some work in Covid-19 for a year or so before coming here.

I started at the Roslin Institute in January 2022. I’m looking at how gene activity is regulated in cattle, how variations in the DNA between different animals affects their gene regulation, and then applying that to understanding the effect of parasitic diseases. I'm currently looking at parasitic diseases that are prevalent across sub-Saharan Africa, especially Theileria parasites, which cause a fatal disease affecting cattle.

What led you to research cancer in Tasmanian devils?

I wasn't expecting going into that niche research realm. At the time I was looking for PhDs in human cancer. I was really interested in cancer research and cancer immunology and most research is focused on humans, but a random advert came up for Tasmanian devils’ cancer research and it sounded very interesting, so I applied to it. Before then, I didn't even realise you could do that type of research on animals.

I was very excited about doing that, and now my interest has evolved from cancer research, to figuring out how animal genes work against disease.

What was your motivation to start researching animal health?

I’ve always loved animals and nature. My PhD was the joining of my two interests, researching cancer biology while working with animals. While finishing that PhD, I realised I'm just really interested in animal diseases.

Animal diseases are a different challenge. We have to work around problems that just don't exist in human research. For example, we don't have the same access to information or samples. I quite like the problem-solving aspect of it, and I’m always doing something that hasn't been done before. There’s a lot of innovation happening in Roslin, and I think that's so cool.

What project are you currently working on?

We're currently using a couple of different novel methods of sequencing DNA to identify regions across the cattle genome that control gene expression.

The problem with Theileria parva, the main parasite we work on, is that it has a 100 per cent mortality rate. It exists across sub-Saharan Africa, and European cattle breeds are very susceptible to it. European cattle are much more productive than African breeds, so this disease causes a real economic and socioeconomic problem.

Sometimes, entire villages rely on just one herd of cattle, and ideally if they could bring in a European breed, such as Holstein Friesians, that could make that village's life much easier - by producing more, they could sell more. However, if we take those animals into Africa, they will most likely die of this disease, wiping out a village’s livelihood. There are some treatment options, but they’re not very effective or readily available. We don't really understand the biology of these parasites, it's not well studied.

My lab has previously shown a region of the cattle genome that seems to be associated with better tolerance to T. parva, but we don't know why. My project focuses on researching which part of the DNA influences tolerance to the disease and finding potential treatment targets that could help either breed resistant animals or make better treatments so that we can help these communities.

Are there any recent findings or maybe a technology or similar that you'd like to explore further?

The next-generation DNA sequencing methods that are coming through are quite impressive. I've been trying very hard to get PRO-Cap, one of these methods, working. It's never been used in cattle, it's only been used in human DNA. It's a neat way of looking at we call enhancers, areas of the DNA that regulate gene expression. We don't know where on the genome these enhancers are in cattle, so we're trying to map them. This sequencing technology is a powerful tool for comparing where enhancers are turned on and off between individuals or between infected and uninfected cells. It also has a lot of potential to be useful in other species, not just cattle. I'm really excited about getting that fully up and running and seeing what we can generate with it.

What is your favourite project that you've worked on?

I really like the Tasmanian Devil one. You just don't get opportunities like that very often. I'm a wet lab scientist and getting to do lab-based research on such an exotic animal was really exciting, and I did get to go to Tasmania and actually trap devils and work with them.

What are some of the challenges that you face as a scientist?

I think as undergraduates, we are taught that every time you do practical work, you always get a result, and if you don't it's because you've done something wrong. That is not how science works at all. Most of what you do will not work, or it will take weeks, months, or years to work. You must keep trying.

That shocked me going into my PhD, because it felt like a sudden hit to my confidence. Overcoming that crisis of confidence is a big challenge.

Once you get a good result, it's fine, but to get there sometimes you have to deal with the feeling that nothing works. One way to overcome that is by just getting used to problem solving. It's a steep learning curve.

What advice would you give to a scientist who is starting their career?

Don't give up when things don't work, and don't burn yourself out. I think there's a bit of an almost toxic culture in science that if you're not in 100 hours a week and in every weekend, you're not going to be successful. That's just not true. Obviously, you need to work hard and there are times where you do work long hours, but you need to take time for yourself because you're never going to produce your best work if you're not at your best. You need time off and to lean on the people around you.

I loved doing my PhD just because of the social aspect. You have a whole cohort of people doing this because they want to. Getting a PhD or a masters is difficult, but everyone there is willing to work for it. Remember you've got people around you who really do understand the situation you're in. It's a good community to have, and it does make you feel a lot less overwhelmed and lonely.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I do a lot of cell culture, I'm growing cells all the time. On a typical work day, I come in early at about 8am, look at my cells, and that pretty much determines my entire day. Sometimes I have to spend all day in tissue culture, and sometimes they're all fine and I don't have to go in at all. Because I'm lab-based, my days are very variable. When I have big experiments, there can be two really long days back to back, then sometimes I'm not in the lab at all. I try to have a coffee break in the morning with other people to sit and chat, and eat lunch with other people to let out some steam.

In an ideal world, where would you like your research to go?

I would really like what I'm doing right now to lead into treatment options for T. parva, and to advance selective breeding. I’d like to establish which areas of the genome are most effective at preventing this disease, and figure out how to effectively breed cattle to have this trait – although gene editing is probably a bit further down the line.

Being able to have long-term strategies for helping people manage this nasty disease would be the gold standard. That's what science is all about.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be, and what would you eat with them?

It would definitely be veteran broadcaster David Attenborough. I have been a fan for a long time – I even have a tattoo of him.

Whatever I eat with him would have to be sustainably sourced, wouldn't it? Nothing with palm oil. Maybe I'd go for a vegan or vegetarian option just for the sustainability.

I remember watching Attenborough on TV and was just enthralled by it, and he made me want to go into science. He's been a voice for science over many decades, and an inspiration to so many.