The team based at Ghent University has a number of significant roles to play in the PARAGONE project’s quest to enable vaccine-based control of parasitic infections of farm animals. Specifically, the Ghent group is working towards combined vaccines for the control of both Ostertagia and Cooperia (the most common species of gut worms affecting cattle in Europe and elsewhere), as well as looking at the prospects for vaccines against the sheep scab mite, Psoroptes ovis (which also affects cattle, particularly Belgian Blues).
On 4th August I met with three of the team involved – PIs Edwin Claerebout and Peter Geldhof, Post-doc Jimmy Borloo and almost-finished PhD student Ana Gonzalez-Hernandez (not funded by PARAGONE but working closely with the team).
The Vet School is situated on the Merelbeke Campus of the University – a little apart from other Faculties, but a short car journey from the city centre. It has impressive new facilities, including a whole floor for parasitology in the recently-opened research building, as well as the on-site veterinary hospital. Indeed, veterinary parasitologists will recognize some legendary names in the reserved parking spaces in front of the building….
The PARAGONE team at Ghent, in addition to Edwin and Jimmy, also includes recently-hired immunology post-doc Aurélie Gagnaire and works closely also with core staff in a number of different disciplines. Edwin indicates that the success of the team is built on its fundamental interdisciplinarity – for example, Jimmy’s expertise in protein chemistry, and his experience in industry, is essential in solving the difficult problem of producing recombinant helminth antigens that can equal or surpass the protective capacity of native molecules, while Anna’s background in fundamental immunology and biomedical science adds to the veterinary vaccinology firepower of Edwin and Peter.
As expected, the team is strongly enthusiastic about the supranational support provided from the EU for livestock vaccine research through PARAGONE in H2020, and before that PARAVAC in FP7. Here again, they speak about the importance of this support in having facilitated interdisciplinary approaches and fostered collaboration among the leaders in the field across Europe and beyond. Notably, both of these projects had (excellent!) UK co-ordinators, and together we mull over the prospects for future collaborations in a post-Brexit scenario. Notwithstanding those uncertainties, we all agree on the crucial role of EU funding in leveraging and synergising with funding from National agencies and commercial sources, and on how much clearer the prospects for Livestock vaccines are following on from several years of consistent EU funding.
The specific antigen that is most promising in terms of protecting cattle against gut worms is a protein secreted by the worms called Activation Associated Secreted Protein – ASP for short. Using ASP purified from worms, the Ghent scientists can reliably achieve very impressive levels of protection – between 50 and 90% in trials, measured by cumulative reduction of egg output from vaccinated animals. However, in order to be commercially successful, recombinant production of this molecule is required in order to achieve scale at reasonable cost, as well as consistency. Therein lies the rub. ASP can be produced efficiently and effectively by inserting the DNA that codes for the protein into a type of yeast – Pichia. However, when produced in the yeast the folding of the protein is not quite the same as when produced by the worm – and this slight difference is enough to render the recombinant protein much less effective in producing a protective immune response than that of the native protein. This is one area where Jimmy’s skills as a protein biochemist can really help – in dissecting exactly what precisely, the differences in how the folding of the two proteins differ, and whether this can be overcome by some clever recombinant protein engineering.
Beyond the PARAGONE project, we also discuss career pathways in science. National funding bodies in Belgium tend to provide stipends for PhD students rather than salaries for post-docs – and hence EU funding, again, is very helpful in allowing new doctoral graduates consolidate their experience through post-doctoral fellowships.
As in many other places, there is a gender divide in veterinary medicine, with 80% of the undergraduate students being women. A majority of the PhD students are also women – but again following a common trend, the proportions equalize and then go into reverse as the academic ladder ascends. The University has various policies aimed at promoting equality, including gender equality – but awareness of these and of their effect “at the bench” seems relatively low.
As well as being interdisciplinary, the Ghent parasitologists are an extremely social and hospitable lot (as anyone who remembers WAAVP in Ghent 2007 will testify!). Over a delicious lunch, I learn about Jimmy’s ventures into another area of biotechnology – the brewing of beer. Of course – this is taken very seriously in Belgium! Jimmy professes fondness for that famous English black beer- Guinness (I forgive him the faux pas – he has not yet visited Dublin and clearly we must rectify that!). His own brews are, I’m told, excellent, produced for lab celebrations and events, and may be produced commercially in the future.
Yeast is a wondrous thing.