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REPRODIVAC: Next – generation vaccines and diagnostics to prevent livestock reproductive diseases of worldwide impact

Moredun Research Institute, together with 15 other partners across 7 European countries (Italy, United Kingdom, Spain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland) has recently been successful in a Horizon Europe funding bid, to develop innovative vaccines and diagnostics for livestock reproductive diseases.

This funding,  provided through the UK Horizon Europe Guarantee, focuses on four of the most economically important infectious causes of abortions, stillbirths and weak offspring affecting pigs, sheep and goats. Current vaccines and diagnostic tests are either not available or are suboptimal and Moredun will lead on two of the four diseases targeted in the project. These diseases are caused by intra-cellular bacteria: ovine enzootic abortion (OEA), one of the most common infectious causes of abortion in sheep worldwide, caused by Chlamydia abortus, and Q fever, an important and highly contagious disease affecting sheep, cattle and goats, caused by Coxiella burnetii. Both C. abortus and C. burnetii are zoonotic, meaning they can affect humans, causing abortion and foetal death in pregnant women. Both bacteria can also cause other symptoms in people, from flu-like to chronic presentations affecting the heart, liver and kidneys. Currently both infections are controlled by vaccination of livestock; however vaccines for both diseases are difficult to manufacture and have some safety issues, with OEA vaccines consisting of live bacteria being infrequently associated with abortions in sheep, and Q fever vaccines based on killed whole bacteria causing severe post-vaccination reactions. Furthermore, there are currently no diagnostic tests capable of discriminating between infected and vaccinated individuals, meaning that it is impossible to track numbers of infections in a population of vaccinated animals.

The REPRODIVAC project builds on previous work led by MRI on OEA and Q fever and aims to develop subunit vaccines (i.e. vaccines consisting of components of the bacteria rather than the whole bacteria) in order to improve their safety. For OEA, two approaches to vaccine development will be taken. The first is to refine a previously developed vaccine based on membrane extracts of the bacteria, whereas the second will attempt to develop a vaccine based on synthetic versions of proteins on the surface of the bacteria. For Q fever, previously work funded by the BBSRC and the UK Department of Health has identified a number of C. burnetii proteins targeted by antibodies from sheep protected against Q fever that could potentially be used for vaccine development. This list will be complemented by additional proteins identified using novel synthetic antibody-based technologies developed at the Pirbright Institute in England. Synthetic versions of these protein candidates will be incorporated into prototype vaccines for testing. For both bacteria, complementary diagnostic tests will be developed with the ability to discriminate between vaccinated and infected animals.

The success of the project critically depends on the expertise, knowledge and collaboration of EU project partners who experience similar livestock infections as are seen in the UK. While there is currently a delay in the UK’s association to EU research funding programmes including Horizon Europe, it is important and timely that the UKRI Horizon Europe Guarantee scheme has allowed this ambitious and innovative project to go ahead.

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