University of Illinois veterinary student Zack Talbert has received the Morrison Swine Innovator Prize, an award given to veterinary students who want to specialize in swine medicine. The award was presented September 16 at the annual Allen D. Leman Swine Conference in St. Paul, MN.
All North American veterinary students with an interest in swine health and production were eligible. Talbert’’s presentation on creating a prototype device for making fumigation practices more efficient persuaded reviewers to award him the Prize.
University of Minnesota scientists are collaborating to look at how PRRS virus evolves to understand disease spread, and advance mitigation and control efforts
ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA —- A new grant of nearly $3 million will help University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) researchers and collaborators at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute investigate how porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus evolves and spreads. The research will help scientists and producers anticipate a herd’s susceptibility to different strains of PRRS virus, and customize mitigation efforts accordingly. The data generated could be used to inform future vaccine designs. The grant is funded jointly by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the United Kingdom Government’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It will cover the next four years of research.
PRRS virus costs the US swine industry more than $560 million each year. First described in Indiana, North Carolina, Iowa, and Minnesota in the late 1980s, the virus rapidly spreads within barns and between farms. It has since remained one of the industry’s biggest game changers. Since its emergence in the United States, scientists have worked to reduce its impact.
But while a host may build immunity to a certain strain of PRRS virus after infection, that strain—as with any RNA virus—can counter-evolve to survive in that host and spread. And viruses often compete for hosts—some are better than others at evading the host’s immunity, depending on what that host is used to. This process is called “multistrain dynamics,” and has been investigated extensively in human medicine, but has rarely been explored in animals—until now. This project aims to help farmers understand how PRRS virus evolves, changes, moves, and persists. It also helps producers explore ways of out-maneuvering PRRS virus.
As with many RNA viruses, PRRS virus rapidly evolves and acquires genetic changes over time. However, scientists can study and potentially predict the genetic diversity of PRRS virus in pigs better than they can study other viruses in humans or wildlife because of the rich availability of data—they know where farms are, so they know what the distribution of hosts looks like. They also know how animals are moving between farms, and there is already a lot of ongoing sequencing, so scientists know where and when strains of the virus occur. Researchers don’t have this information readily available for studying the same questions in a human virus.
Kim VanderWaal, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine (VPM) at the CVM, is the principal investigator on the project. She says, “Studying PRRS virus’s evolution will help us better understand and hopefully control PRRS virus, but it will also help us understand the evolution and drivers of genetic diversity in viruses in humans and other animals.”
The U of M Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has been collecting samples of the PRRS virus for nearly three decades. As part of the grant’s research team, Albert Rovira, DVM, PhD, an associate professor in the VPM, and his team will continue to sequence small parts of RNA from the lab’s collection to determine which samples are new variations of the virus. “We also have hundreds of virus isolates saved in the lab’s freezer,” says Rovira, who notes that these isolates could be used to infect pigs during the research.
The project is partially built on data collected by the Morrison Swine Health Monitoring Project (MSHMP) at the University of Minnesota, which tracks the occurrence of PRRS virus in roughly 50% of the United States’ breeding swine population. MSHMP is coordinated by Cesar Corzo, DVM, MS, PhD, associate professor in the VPM, who is also on the research team for this grant. “One of the reasons Minnesota is so ideally situated for this research is that this dataset is one-of-a-kind,” says VanderWaal.
Another specific asset to this team’s approach is the contributions of Declan Schroeder, PhD, virologist and associate professor in the VPM. Schroeder’s lab was able to develop a new technique that can describe the full genomic strain profile of PRRS virus within 24 hours of sampling. Schroeder says this research can give veterinarians a better tool to rapidly diagnose the infection in animals.
This work is also extremely timely. Another part of this project aims to track the spread of different strains of PRRS virus, including newly evolved ones. “An emergence of a new strain was last seen in 2014,” says VanderWaal. “and we see a general pattern where a significant new type or strain appears every three to five years.”
The University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (MVDL) has named one of its diagnosticians assistant director. Albert Rovira, DVM, MS, PhD, assumed the post in July. He has been a large animal diagnostician with the MVDL since 2008. In his new role, Rovira will lead efforts to build stakeholder relationships and improve internal operations.
“Dr. Rovira has demonstrated strong leadership in developing and nurturing key relationships between the MVDL and other public and private organizations,” says Jerry Torrison, DVM, PhD, DACVPM, director of the MVDL. “He also has played a central role in our continuous efforts to improve the efficiency and quality of our operations.”
Rovira has a proven track record in building successful collaborations between the MVDL and multiple partners, including research teams at the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, to public organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, and pharmaceutical companies. He has also been a leader in evaluating and advising clients on new diagnostic sampling techniques.
“The field of veterinary diagnostics is dynamic,” Rovira says, “and this ongoing change makes it fun to come to work each day to safeguard animal health from the constant threat of infectious disease.”
A native of Barcelona, Spain, Rovira earned his DVM and master’s from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, and his PhD from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Since 2000, he has published more than 40 peer-reviewed articles and served as the lead- or co-investigator on more than 35 research projects. As a large animal diagnostician, Rovira consults with clients on a daily basis to equip them with the best diagnostic tools available, elucidate test results, and implement effective disease-fighting strategies.
The MVDL is the official laboratory of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, is the only accredited laboratory in Minnesota, and is a Level I member of the United States Department of Agriculture National Animal Health Laboratory Network. It is a recognized national leader in providing rapid diagnosis of animal diseases, identifying emerging diseases, developing new diagnostic methods, and training diagnosticians and veterinarians.
With laboratories in St. Paul and Willmar, the MVDL performs more than 1 million procedures each year. The MVDL is poised to roll out new virus detection capabilities, and assist in developing new field-based diagnostic tests for Chronic Wasting Disease, the prion-based infectious disease emerging within Minnesota’s wild deer population.