From BVD to work on emerging pathogens in dogs... - Veterinary Practice
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From BVD to work on emerging pathogens in dogs…

JOHN BONNER catches up with the ‘semiretired’ Professor Joe Brownlie and learns about his research into problems with both large and small animals and discovers his proudest achievements

FEW veterinary scientists are identified more closely with a particular condition than Professor Joe Brownlie and his work on bovine viral diarrhoea.

But those colleagues who have labelled him “Mr BVD” will have to find another badge to pin on his heavily bemedalled chest. That is because he has now achieved what he has done for that disease in cattle with another condition in an entirely different species.

He has led the team which has assembled the data from studies in basic science that have allowed applied researchers to forge the tools needed to help control a serious animal pathogen.

That agent is canine respiratory coronavirus, a cause of acute disease in animal welfare shelters and commercial kennels. Working with the Battersea Dogs Home where the condition was first identified, his team conducted the largest ever survey of respiratory disease in the canine population and developed the diagnostic tests needed to identify it at other sites.

Now working with Zoetis, they have created and presented for regulatory approval the first vaccine against this condition – just as his work led to the introduction of the pioneering BVD vaccine, Bovidec, in the 1990s.

“I have been fortunate to be involved in that process from the initial epidemiological studies to the trials of a commercial product. It is very exciting, and quite unusual, to be involved in both basic and applied research and then to take it on to the veterinary delivery stage.”

At a time when many scientists are entering the “pipe and slippers” phase of their lives, Joe is enjoying a period of intensive productivity which matches any time in a long career as a veterinary pathologist at the Institute for Animal Health’s Compton laboratory and since 1995 at the Royal Veterinary College.

Prof. Brownlie was supposed to have retired from the RVC in 2009 but needed little persuasion to agree a contract under which he would continue to lead both the BVD research team and the group looking at coronavirus and other respiratory diseases in dogs.

This involves working a nominal three days a week, which allows him time for a number of other activities such as the chairmanship of the IAH scientific advisory board and his association with the South African Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance. This is a consortium of southern African medical and veterinary, academic and research institutions involved with infectious diseases of humans and animals, which he visits at least twice a year.

Following on from the canine coronavirus work, Joe’s team is working with a team of US veterinary researchers on two other emerging pathogens in dogs: a respiratory syncytial virus similar to that in cattle, and a newly identified hepacivirus similar to that responsible for hepatitis C in humans.

“These are fascinating times for a veterinary scientist. The emergence of genomic technologies means that we can quickly and accurately identify the gene sequence of pathogens which previously we weren’t even aware of. But to get anywhere with that information, you have to combine it with the classical skills in epidemiology, pathology, etc., that the RVC is very experienced in.”

With respiratory conditions like kennel cough, that work often centres on the complex interactions between different pathogens. “We have recently been able to show in dogs how mycoplasma will come pouring into the lung after a virus has disabled the immune response. This was known about as a theory but we have provided the real data. It means that by stopping the initial cause you have a much better chance in protecting the dog against bacterial colonisation.”

This interest in canine medicine does not mean that he has abandoned his lifelong involvement in BVD research. But the questions for which he is seeking answers are less about the science than the economic and practical issues surrounding disease control.

While the Scandinavian countries are well on the way to eradicating the virus from their national herds and several other nations, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, have launched control programmes, England and Wales are still discussing the issue. After many years of debate, there is no consensus on how the testing process should be organised and who should pay for it.

Progress requires funding

In the current climate, Joe acknowledges it is unlikely that a control programme for an endemic, non-zoonotic disease will receive any financial support from DEFRA. He believes, however, that it would be feasible to establish a scheme funded by the various interest groups, the levy bodies, the National Farmers’ Union, wholesalers, etc. “But there really has to be a compulsory, legally-binding programme if you are going to make any sort of progress.”

It is also vital that farmers are convinced of the value of a rigorous testing programme which identifies and eliminates persistently infected cattle from the national herd. So (as reported in last month’s issue) Joe chairs the scientific committee advising the Farming Against BVD (FAB) initiative, which brings together the RVC, Novartis and private practitioners with the aim of improving awareness of the disease among cattle farmers.

The group has carried out important research into farmers’ attitudes and will be following that up with a detailed analysis of the economic impact of the disease. FAB believes that even the least motivated farmers could be brought on side with an argument based on the improvements in profitability that might be expected with a successful eradication programme.

Joe thinks that the £40 million figure quoted as the annual cost of BVD to the dairy industry may well underestimate the scale of the problem.

In a career that began with his graduation from the Bristol veterinary school in 1967, Joe has received a remarkable number of honours including being awarded fellowships of the RCVS, the Royal College of Pathologists and the Royal Agricultural Societies, as well as the Selbourne and RASE Research Medals and the BVA centenary award.

But the achievement that he says has given him most pleasure was none of these. “In the late 1980s there was an alarming dearth of people with those skills that I had learned during my training as a veterinary pathologist. So we got support from the Wellcome Trust to launch an intercalated course in veterinary pathology based at the RVC which trained around 10 students every year from all the UK schools for about 10 years from 1990.”

Of those 100 students, he reckons that more than 80% went on to take PhDs and many are now leading lights in the field. “There are many benefits of working in a university environment but it is mostly about the people you meet. I have had the opportunity to work with some remarkably bright and interesting people and it is that which keeps you going.”

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