Research into developing vaccines and diagnostics for livestock reproductive diseases has received a €2m cash injection for the next five years – with some of the cash coming to Scottish researchers.

The funding, provided through the UK Horizon Europe Guarantee, will focus on four of the most economically important infectious causes of abortions, stillbirths and weak offspring affecting pigs, sheep and goats, as current vaccines and diagnostic tests are either not available or are suboptimal.

The Moredun Research Institute will lead on two of the four diseases targeted in the project and will join forces with 15 other partners across seven European countries – Italy; UK; Spain; France; Netherlands; Germany and Switzerland.

Moredun scientist, Dr Tom McNeilly, is leading on what is known as the REPRODIVAC project : “We are leading on the two reproductive diseases of sheep and goats: 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.”

New research will look into the infectious causes of abortions, stillbirths and weak offspring affecting pigs, sheep and goats

New research will look into the infectious causes of abortions, stillbirths and weak offspring affecting pigs, sheep and goats

Dr McNally explained that the diseases were caused by bacteria which live inside cells, which is why it had been difficult to develop vaccines.

“Both are also zoonotic, meaning they can affect humans, causing abortion and foetal death in pregnant women,” he continued. “Both bacteria can also cause other symptoms in people, from flu-like to chronic presentations affecting the heart, liver and kidneys.”

He added that Moredun’s reputation for work in zoonotic diseases, coupled with specialist facilities, meant they were well placed to carry out this work and provide the necessary protection for staff.

He explained that both infections were currently controlled by vaccination of livestock, however vaccines for both diseases were 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.

There are currently no diagnostic tests capable of discriminating between infected and vaccinated individuals, meaning that it is has been impossible to track numbers of infections in a population of vaccinated animals.

“This REPRODIVAC project will be focused on developing vaccines and a diagnostic test that can differentiate between animals which are vaccinated and animals that have been infected by a particular disease,” continued Dr McNally.

“It will build on previous work led by Moredun on OEA and more recently, on Q fever, and aims to develop subunit vaccines (ie vaccines consisting of components of the bacteria, rather than the whole bacteria) in order to improve their safety.

“The success of the project will critically depend on the expertise, knowledge and collaboration of EU project partners who experience similar livestock infections as are seen in the UK.”

Moredun’s chief scientific officer, Professor Julie Fitzpatrick, added: “Around 13% of scientists based here at Moredun are European. We have always worked so closely with Europe as our animals and diseases are similar.

"This Horizon funding announcement has been so welcome, not only as it guarantees five full years of funding, but it also supports scientific collaboration with our European neighbours, which we want to continue.”