In much of Africa, a herd of cattle is more than just cows. It's a savings account, protein store, dowry, funeral fund, symbol of wealth, and hedge against drought. For many smallholder farmers, the loss of even a single cow to disease can spell ruin.
Yet a grievous number of cattle in sub-Saharan Africa get sick: one estimate puts annual losses from disease at $40 billion, some twenty-five percent of the total value of livestock production in the region.
John Barlow, professor of animal sciences at the University of Vermont, thinks the cows in the university's research herd may be able to help.
"Many cattle diseases in sub-Saharan Africa might be prevented if we had better vaccines," he says, "but the way we have traditionally created vaccines is expensive and takes a lot of time."
That's why he's leading an international project that aims to better understand the molecular workings of cow immune systems -- and accelerate the development of vaccines for two critical cattle diseases: East Coast fever and foot-and-mouth disease.
Barlow and his colleagues in Kenya, Denmark and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are supported by a new three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.
"In the first year, we will be studying the cattle in the University of Vermont herd to understand the diversity of their immune function genes," Barlow says.
Then, applying this knowledge, the team will use a new technology that has been accelerating human vaccine development, but, until now, hasn't been applied to cows: so-called MHC tetramers. These synthetic molecules allow researchers to quickly get a view of what proteins in the invading virus or parasite are likely to spark a strong immune response in the host animal.
"These proteins are the key vaccine candidates," says Barlow -- and can be tested in lab cell lines.
The MHC -- or "major histocompatibility complex" -- is a large family of g
|Contact: Joshua Brown|
University of Vermont