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Professor Lonneke Vervelde on chicken health

Using mini organs to understand chicken immunology and vaccines, and working away from her home country.

Professor Lonneke Vervelde in a garden with her dog

Professor Lonneke Vervelde is a research group leader at the Roslin Institute where she studies the immune system of chickens, including how pathogens, vaccines, feed additives, genetics, welfare, and environmental factors can alter their immune response. In this interview, she talks to MSc Science Communication student Beth Bryan about how her work is having important implications for the farming industry.

Where are you from?

I am from the Netherlands. I did my degree and PhD there and then moved to England to do my first postdoc at the Institute for Animal Health in Compton, England. After that, I moved to the Vet School in Utrecht, The Netherlands where I worked for 15 years before coming to Scotland to work at the Roslin Institute, eight years ago.

Why did you become a scientist and what drew you to your particular field?

I like solving puzzles and trying to find answers, and in science that never stops and never gets boring. For every answer you find, a new question arises. I’ve always been interested in learning about how the body reacts to germs, and I’ve always been interested in agriculture, so my current work is a good combination of those interests.

Why did you decide to work at the Roslin Institute?

What attracted me to Roslin was that I’m a chicken immunologist and here we have people working in different fields related to chickens, such as pathogens that infect them, genetics of chickens, and other related areas, so for me it was really good to be in an environment where people are working on the same species as me. There is always a colleague around I can ask for advice, help and collaborate with.

Do you have a favourite project from your time at Roslin?

My favourite projects are the ones I am currently working on. We are working on in-vitro organoid culture systems, which means we grow organs in a petri dish. Currently, we are growing mini guts, which I find very exciting and it is working very well.

There’s a lot of interest in this work from feed and pharmaceutical companies because there is a lack of good models to study how the chicken gut responds to pathogens and feed additives. We can produce 3D and 2D versions of intestines in a dish, and for example feed additives can be screened on these models before testing them in animals.

We can also use these organoids to study interaction between microorganisms and the intestine and how to improve vaccine uptake. The poultry industry wants vaccines that can be applied easily via mucosal routes, meaning they can be mixed in the feed or drinking water, or applied as a spray which the birds inhale.

In other exciting projects, we study how we can improve vaccine uptake to improve protection by targeting the specialised cells involved in the vaccine uptake. To do this, we study these specialised cells, or M cells, that take up foreign particles, and how uptake in the respiratory and intestinal tract occurs, and how the immune system responds. We begin with simple antigens and then move on to testing vaccines.

It’s rewarding to be able to do this basic immunological research and have these same projects contributing to solve real problems in the poultry industry. Working with chickens is especially rewarding because we know we are not working with a model animal, but our work will support the industry.

How do these organoids affect your work with real animals? Does it eliminate the need for them?

We can never go without using animals, but the organoids help us to test and refine our research questions before we test them in animals.

In our field, we can study individual cells to answer certain questions, but we miss the complexity of a tissue. Then we have these organoids, which have all the cell types you find in the gut and are a more realistic model. But to complete our immunology research, we have to study the whole animal, to encapsulate the complexity of a whole body which is needed to look at the bigger picture.

For example, when studying influenza virus, it is necessary for us to narrow down the number of viruses we use in an animal trial. So, we use in-vitro assays, which are tests that we carry out on slices of the lung and intestinal organoids that we have generated, to screen viruses before we move the work into animals. This can help us to reduce the number of animals we need for research, which is an achievement I am proud of.

What are the challenges you face as a scientist?

For me, an interesting challenge is living abroad, speaking a language that is not my mother tongue and experience another culture. Another big challenge is to get research funding, which is always a struggle in academia but when you do get it, it’s a reason to celebrate.

How do you overcome those challenges?

Having a good support network is a big help and it’s important to not give up. Perseverance is essential in science, and you can’t take it personally when projects are rejected. That is difficult to get used to at the beginning of your career, because you can take it as a rejection of yourself, which is not the case.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into science?

I would say just do it, because being a scientist is really good fun if you’re passionate about it. Science never gets boring, there’s always a new challenge. You get to travel the world and meet so many new people. I can really recommend it. However, even though every job comes with its own challenges, job security is a problem for many people in academia.

Do you communicate with non-scientists about your work?

I do and enjoy it. For example, I did a science club at the local primary school and spoke to secondary school students about how to become a scientist.

We also work with the Roslin Communications team to produce press releases. Often these releases are picked up by newspapers, which is really exciting. I took my cat to our vet and the vet said she had seen me on the front page of Vet Times, which was really funny.

Working with the Communications and Public Engagement teams at Roslin, we try to explain our science in lay terms, so that we can open our research to everyone.  Some people seem to be naturals at this, but I find it quite hard, although that might be due to the language barrier.

Do you think the importance of science communication has been increasing?

Oh yes, it absolutely has. With all the technological developments, for example the potential to use gene editing, it is so important for us to communicate science effectively. Now during the pandemic it is especially crucial. There are many anti-vaccination stories in the news that are not based on scientific data, so we have to communicate carefully. The whole set up of communication nowadays means stories can travel around the world so rapidly, and that’s why communicating the right science is absolutely vital.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist?

I would be an animal trainer, or a dog or horse breeder, or I would have a nature reserve in Africa and rescue injured, endangered animals. I would definitely be working in something related to animals.

Related links

New method aids study of poultry infections

Chicken gene find could help improve vaccines

Vaccine shows promise against widespread chicken disease