VIDO Tech Report: Horse knowledge helps researchers solve cross-species diseases

Apr 22, 2004

West Nile virus has dramatically raised the profile of diseases that affect both humans and horses. Now, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) in Saskatoon are taking advantage of this type of similarity to develop cross-species solutions to infectious diseases.

"Much of what is applicable to the horse regarding infectious diseases is also applicable to other species," says Dr. Hugh Townsend, a VIDO Senior Scientist specializing in equine diseases. "Learning more about equine diseases and how they impact the horse can lead to practical disease solutions for both the horse and for other species, including humans."

VIDO has several studies underway examining equine diseases. These studies are part of the organization's broad focus to capitalize on the convergence of health research among various animal species and humans, says Dr. Lorne Babiuk, VIDO Director. "Many of the important and emerging infectious diseases today are ones that affect more than one species. Likewise, major advances in science are allowing health research to increasingly move beyond species boundaries."

VIDO has traditionally concentrated on health solutions for food animals, and has expanded into the human health arena as this cross-species potential has grown. As part of its relationship with Canada's livestock industries and with the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine, VIDO has also long maintained a small but significant emphasis on equine health research - an area with greater relevance and potential than ever before.

"Currently, a key equine research area for VIDO is viral respiratory diseases," says Townsend. "Because equine respiratory infections are comparable to infections in humans and other animals, knowledge gained in this research can lead to broad disease control progress."

Case in point is VIDO's project to target solutions for Rhodococcus equi, an important disease agent in foals, he says. While this bacteria can cause bronchopneumonia in foals, it can also be responsible for infection in humans compromised by immunosuppressive drug therapy, lymphoma, or AIDS. The bacteria is genetically closely related to tuberculosis.

"There's something very particular about the foal that makes it susceptible to this organism," says Townsend. "We are interested in discovering why, and what we can do to protect those young foals against the development of that disease. If we do that, we may also have learned something important about protecting other young animals or young people against certain bacterial infections."

The cross-species benefits work both ways, he adds. VIDO's progress in equine influenza is a good example. "The technology used to develop a new intra-nasal influenza vaccine for humans has been adapted for use in horses." Townsend says VIDO's knowledge of modelling influenza in the horse has supported the study of the efficacy and application of this vaccine for preventing disease in horses. The results have application to both horses and humans.

For the future, West Nile virus and other emerging infectious diseases are key priorities for VIDO and its equine research component, says Townsend. In North America, the virus has been spread to horses and humans by infected mosquitoes, which had obtained the virus from infected birds. "West Nile virus is a perfect example of the type of emerging diseases that are on VIDO's radar."

West Nile virus is what is known among health professionals as a "Level 3" disease - one which poses a serious threat to animals and humans and requires high-level safety regulations for labs within which it is studied. VIDO currently conducts Level 3 research at partner facilities, but will add major capacity with recently announced plans for a new International Vaccine Centre (INTERVAC), slated to open on the University of Saskatchewan campus in 2008.

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization is a world leader in vaccine research for the control of infectious diseases and is a wholly owned University of Saskatchewan not-for-profit institute. It operates with substantial support from the Government of Alberta and the Government of Saskatchewan as well as Government of Canada competitive grants.