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Giving ‘neglected’ livestock technologies a chance

Researchers investigate overlooked animal health technologies for Africa

By Vanessa Meadu and Theodora Tsouloufi

A Tanzanian Maasai man helps administer a vaccine to cattle against East Coast fever. Photo: S. Mann (ILRI)
A Tanzanian Maasai man helps administer the 'infection-and-treatment method' of immunizing cattle against East Coast fever. SEBI is supporting development of an alternative live vaccine for ECF using Trypanosoma theileri as a vector. Photo: S. Mann (ILRI)

In the era of Artificial Intelligence, recombinant DNA, and cloud computing, it seems there are endless opportunities for technology to improve animal health and productivity. But there is an enormous gap between the potential for technology to make an impact, and successfully implementing that technology on the ground. This gap is known in the industrial world as the ‘valley of death’, and countless technologies fail in the journey from concept to market. Now, development scientists from the Supporting Evidence Based Interventions (SEBI) program at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies are working to generate new evidence that could spur much-needed investment into bringing technologies to market in countries that need them the most.

The ‘valley of death’ for animal health technologies is particularly troubling for low and middle-income countries, where new vaccines or diagnostic tools remain untested and therefore unused. In these countries, livestock provide vital income, food and nutrition to millions of people, yet animal productivity and health remain low, and livestock keepers struggle to reach their full potential. The initial SEBI research aims to remove obstacles to innovation and provide market intelligence to guide commercialisation for ten overlooked technologies that promise to tackle a range of animal health issues in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Unblocking innovation”

There can be many factors holding back the deployment of these tools, especially if they are deemed ‘risky’. The animal health industry or development partners are often reluctant or unable to run adequate trials due to limited funding or insufficient expertise. The perceived benefits of a technology may be deemed too low, or the costs of distribution assumed too high.

Without clear evidence, there will be no action. We want to remove one of the principal obstacles holding back technologies, by demonstrating whether they actually work, and assessing their value for money.

Prof. Andy PetersSEBI Program Director

The research team have developed a protocol for identifying and appraising technologies, and are now taking the initial batch of technologies through a three-stage evaluation process.

  1. Assess: SEBI’s rapid evaluation process assesses the viability of concepts within a limited scope, including the contractual and financial capacity. Within two weeks, SEBI can provide insights to funders about whether to take the initiative to the next stage. 
  2. Pilot: We develop and fund trials of emerging technologies and generate high-quality insights on their safety and effectiveness for animal health and productivity.
  3. Analyse: we provide reliable evidence on the efficacy and potential value for money.

 

By offering this full-service evaluation package to technology originators and development funders, Peters hopes that SEBI can take some of the uncertainty and risk out of the innovation process. “The goal is to enable smarter investments in technologies that can make a difference to smallholder livestock keepers,” he said.

A promising portfolio

The SEBI team has developed a broad portfolio of projects, in collaboration with well-established research teams and livestock industrial partners.  All of these projects are innovative and aim to tackle major diseases that are known to compromise the productivity of sub-Saharan African livestock. Here is a sampling of some of the project evaluations that are currently running with SEBI’s support.

Role of cattle in Peste des petits ruminants virus transmission dynamics

Peste des petits ruminants (PPR), or sheep and goat plague, is a contagious and deadly disease that affects sheep and goats worldwide.  Over 330 million farmers around the world rely on sheep and goats for their livelihoods, and the disease results in global annual losses of $2 billion USD.  PPR contributes to global poverty and food insecurity; the disease is endemic in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and may have entered the European Union in Bulgaria in 2018.   Given the importance of PPR, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) launched a global campaign in 2015 to eradicate PPR by 2030. Although a vaccine is already available to prevent the disease, there is a significant gap in our knowledge of the epidemiology of PPR virus. The role of cattle as a potential reservoir host for the virus has yet to be clarified: it has been demonstrated that cattle can be infected (experimentally or naturally in the field) but it is unclear if they spread the virus onwards. This knowledge gap potentially undermines current eradication plans.  SEBI currently supports a multi-institutional research team led by Dr. Vivek Kapur and epidemiologist Catherine Herzog at Pennsylvania State University (USA) which will investigate the multi-species transmission dynamics of PPR virus in collaboration with experts at the National Animal Health Diagnostic and Investigation Center (NADHIC) in Ethiopia and the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania. The team will test if cattle that are experimentally or naturally infected with the PPR virus are able to transmit the virus onward to sheep, goats, or other cattle.  The research output from the work will help inform effective eradication efforts. 

Development of an alternative live vaccine for ECF using Trypanosoma theileri as a vector
East Coast Fever (ECF) is a tick-borne disease of the cattle caused by the protozoon Theileria parva. This disease causes high morbidity and mortality in cattle, leading to annual losses of approximately US $300 million. A number of interventions are available to combat ECF, but these come with drawbacks related to the strain/stock specific immunity, the dose packages, the administration of the vaccine and therapy, as well as the associated delivery costs.

SEBI is supporting a research team led by Prof Keith Matthews at the University of Edinburgh, which is currently exploring the potential for the development of an ECF vaccine. They have developed and hold the patent for a novel and flexible vaccine platform using as a vehicle the Trypanosoma theileri organism, which is a non-pathogenic parasite found worldwide in cattle. 

Development of an alternative live vaccine for ECF using cultured cells

SEBI is funding a team within the Roslin Institute led by Prof Ivan Morrison to develop the proof of concept for an ECF vaccine, this time using an alternative approach: vaccination with Theileria parva cell cultures.

In this approach, the induction of immunity is attained using Theileria parva- infected cells that have been modified to enhance transfer of the parasite from the injected infected cells into the cells of recipient animals. The approach is innovative as it would require small numbers of cells per vaccine dose, would be suitable for commercial manufacture as a vaccine, and would allow cattle to maintain their immunity for longer periods, thus minimizing the number of boost doses.  Prof Morrison’s team has years of experience working with ECF and vaccine development, and is expected to deliver some very interesting results.

Challenges and lessons learned so far

Trialling emerging animal health technologies comes with its own special set of challenges. Some of these are inherent and unavoidable, as most of the supported projects are currently in the proof-of-concept stage. As such, it is difficult to forecast research capacity and capability. As well, scientific ideas cannot always be transferred to different settings, and it can be tricky to set success criteria for each project.

Of course, even greater challenges lie ahead, such as local uptake and converting scientific ideas into licensable technologies. The SEBI team is collaborating with the research teams to provide ongoing support in tackling these challenges.

Next steps

The SEBI team is currently refining its internal processes to ensure that new and innovative technologies can be identified and put into use, and be adequately supported. SEBI is cooperating with national authorities in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania and has put local and international technical experts in place to support project delivery and ensure due diligence. All of the supported projects are expected to produce new scientific insights, which hopefully will lead to useful products that tackle livestock mortality and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

Vanessa Meadu is the Communications and Knowledge Exchange Specialist for SEBI. Theodora Tsouloufi is a Researcher with SEBI.