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Scientists pave the way for vaccine to combat devastating avian disease

New research could help tackle poultry disease which costs industry millions of pounds each year

New research, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and in Vaccine, suggests that the severe poultry disease, necrotic enteritis, which is costing the worldwide poultry industry an estimated £600 million a year, could be prevented by immunisation with a vaccine that is being developed by researchers at Birkbeck and the University of Exeter.

In recent years concern over the impact of antibiotics in the food chain has led to an EU-wide ban on the use of antimicrobial growth promoters in animal feeds and a general reduction in use world-wide. These antibiotics, added to promote the growth of poultry, also prevented necrotic enteritis and other diseases.

Professor Richard Titball, University of Exeter said: “Necrotic enteritis is a major concern for the poultry farming industry worldwide and poultry producers are waiting for this desperately needed vaccine. Our work will pave the way for the development of a vaccine that will help farmers tackle this devastating disease.”

Necrotic enteritis, which causes lesions in the intestines of poultry resulting in severe illness and even death, is caused by the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. Research has shown that the bacterium produces a toxin called NetB and much of the disease is caused by the effects of this toxin. Researchers at Birkbeck and the University of Exeter have unravelled the molecular structure of the NetB toxin. Exchanging crucial amino acids in the NetB toxin, using molecular biology techniques, has enabled the researchers to identify a non-toxic form of NetB.

The researchers, who included scientists at the University of Ghent in Belgium, have discovered that immunisation with non-toxic NetB results in protection against necrotic enteritis.

Dr Ajit Basak, from Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences, said: “The development of the non-toxic NetB is an important step towards a necrotic enteritis vaccine. The next stage is to develop a product which can be delivered to poultry in feed or water, and which has the potential to save the poultry industry millions of pounds each year.”

This research was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the European Union Marie Curie Network.

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