Avian Flu: Pandemic Prevention
The UK is at increasing risk of avian flu, a highly contagious disease which not only results in mass culls of millions of birds worldwide but could now also present a serious risk to public health.
Scientists at the Norwich Research Park have developed important technology to aid the fight to tackle avian flu, creating a novel diagnostic test which can rapidly identify the virus at point of entry to the uk.
Carried by migrating wild birds and spread via the global trade in farmed birds, avian flu presents a global health threat on a massive scale.
As well as the huge economic impact of epidemics on the food production sector, animal flu viruses can occasionally transmit to humans with such ‘zoonotic’ influenza viruses causing problems ranging from mild illness to death.
To control the spread the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) currently operate a ‘scorched earth’ policy with 3 km exclusion zones around infected environments and the killing of thousands of birds - whether infected or not. During the early months of 2017, more than 63,000 birds were killed after an outbreak in Lancashire and a further 23,000 chickens were destroyed in Suffolk. In fact, in January 2018 Defra implemented an ‘Avian Influenza Prevention Zone’, applicable to anyone who keeps poultry or captive birds in England.
Further afield, a farm in Italy destroyed over 850,000 birds during October 2017 and the global picture is even more extreme: South Korea culled more than 16 million poultry during the winter of 2016 (one fifth of its poultry population) as part of intense efforts to contain an epidemic. With the rapidly growing, industrialisation of animal protein farming in Asia the spread of infectious diseases such as avian flu is a serious risk.
Tackling the Source
Avian influenza is transmitted by direct exposure to infected live or dead birds or contaminated environments although, once caught, animal flu viruses don’t easily transmit from human to human.
However, it is a disease that can rapidly mutate.
In recent years, emergence of the H5N1 avian influenza strain has been widely covered in the world’s media and since 2013 an increasing number of human infections from the latest H7N9 strain have been reported in China with most patients becoming severely ill. During February 2018, China also confirmed the first ever human case of H7N4 bird flu and experts are also concerned over the current risk from highly pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N8.
Authorities urge those working in the poultry industry to remain vigilant for early signs of an outbreak, encouraging quality surveillance and investigation of every infection. However, diagnosing the infection can be costly and time consuming – sending one sample to the lab can cost upward of £25 and take over 24 hours to process. Vaccines against the disease are also expensive and aren’t effective if the virus mutates – which it often does in intensive flocks.
It’s a problem which scientists Prof. David Russell and Prof. Rob Field of the Norwich Research Park feel uniquely placed to address.
Prof Russell comments:
"With vast numbers of bird carriers and complex migratory patterns, we are not likely to eradicate avian flu, so to minimise the risk of pandemic in the uk controlling the disease at its source is critical."
“It is clear that a better approach to surveillance and diagnosis of the disease is required to help mitigate the spread of infectious disease.“
Russell and Field’s UK based company Iceni Diagnostics are hoping to do just that, developing techniques to screen for avian flu at point of entry to the UK and to rapidly identify the virus strain before it has a chance to spread.
With over 15 years collaborating their expertise in carbohydrate and analytical chemistry Russell and Field are developing point of care diagnostics platforms with a focus on infectious disease.
Prof Field explains:
"Our aim is to deliver to market a rapid, simple to use diagnostic test to help prevent pandemics before they spread.
We are developing a hand-held device which can deliver reliable, rapid results in as little as 20 minutes - identifying whether a sample is human or avian flu".
This fast, early identification could prove invaluable for breeders and small hold farmers, not to mention importers of poultry at point of entry to the UK.
Iceni Diagnostics scientists in the lab:
The scientists have been tackling the problem of how to quickly identify the cause of infection without the need to send samples away, adding cost and delay.
The answer lies in exploiting the fundamental way in which a cell recognises another cell at a chemical level.
Iceni Diagnostic’s underlying technology is based on the rapid detection & discrimination of pathogens (such as bacteria or viruses) using a carbohydrate recognition system.
Carbohydrates play an integral role in the structure and function of a cell. For example, details in the carbohydrate structures determine how one cell binds to another, something which Iceni Diagnostic’s technology exploits.
The carbohydrate binds to the pathogen surface, thereby providing a unique recognition system - a key to a lock which remains on the cell surface.
The company are developing novel carbohydrate reagents, chemical substances which change once a chemical reaction has occurred. The carbohydrate reagents are printed onto nitro cellulose and inserted into a hand-held device.
A sample is then dropped into the device’s absorbent window and, rather like a pregnancy test, the liquid is drawn along the reagent strip giving a positive or negative indication of presence of a pathogen.
The team are confident the test will be effective even on new strains of the virus. Whilst traditional flu vaccines work by employing an antibody which ‘recognises’ the surface of the virus – thereby not working once the virus mutates - Iceni Diagnostics' technology instead relies on a recognition system which binds onto the cell surface regardless of whether it is a mutated form.
Growing the Company
With a core team of six staff, the company aim to produce the reagents and devices and to develop both the company and production in a scalable way, in Norfolk.
“Iceni Diagnostics are committed to establishing the business in Norwich” explains Russell.
"It’s a location which we feel brings commercial benefits but is also ideally placed to employ skilled graduate talent direct from the Norwich research park PhD programme."
The company has seen early success, winning a prestigious Longitude Prize discovery award in 2016 and the Knowledge Catalyst award in the EDP Business Awards 2017.
Russell and Field also have strong support from the local business community, being recently awarded a £60K Eastern Agritech grant aimed specifically at producing a device to detect avian flu and help farmers quickly identify infected birds.
Professors Rob Field and David Russell, awarded a prestigious Longitude Prize Discovery Award:
What Does the Future Hold?
The avian flu device is at a prototype stage but it is clear there is much potential for food producers in the Agritech sector which could be expanded to farmers, vets and breeders.
The company is also keen to explore other applications for the underlying low tech / rapid diagnostics approach.
One area the company are considering is whether the technology could provide vital point of care diagnostics for the health sector.
“We could see its usage in healthcare, for example showing if outbreaks of gastroenteritis are caused by norovirus or Campylobacter. This would help in quickly determining care pathways for critical patients and preventing spread of disease.” suggests Field.
"The system could also be used as a diagnostic tool in the fight against anti-microbial resistance (amr) helping evidence the cause of infections and reducing the use of antibiotics.”
The company have also set their targets on global markets, for example in parts of Asia where no GP system exists patient diagnosis is largely carried out by local pharmacists. Such a low tech, quick tool would enable rapid diagnosis, thereby helping its treatment and reducing spread of infectious disease.
Further in the future Russell and Field are keen to expand the company’s ambitions from diagnosis to therapeutics and developing vaccines.
For now, Iceni Diagnostics are focusing on the present risk from avian flu and continuing to develop practical, real solutions to current threats but it’s clear that the future is bright for a company which is ready to take flight.