K-State receives over $1.2 million in grants for animal vaccine development

K-State veterinary researchers conduct labwork to develop new vaccines for cattle. One disease the vaccines would prevent is African Swine Flu, a disease detrimental to pigs. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Madden)

Kansas State’s College of Veterinary Medicine received two grants to fund research for vaccine development to protect swine and cattle from infectious diseases. 

According to a K-State news release, the combined grants exceed $1.2 million and are funded for a three-year period by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. 

“It’s very exciting and also a huge relief … to know that your work can keep progressing and that you have some sort of way for you to continue to investigate what you’re working on,” Daniel Madden, graduate student in veterinary medicine, said.

Madden said he works for a lab led by Jürgen Richt, principal investigator in the development of a vaccine for African swine fever. African swine fever causes pigs to have a high fever, bloodshot eyes, bleeding of the skin and leads to death, Richt said.

“African swine fever is a very devastating disease for pigs,” Richt, regents distinguished professor and university distinguished professor in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, said. “It’s a virus, which is a huge DNA virus, which is transmitted by pigs.”

The virus has been around for decades but was detected in northeastern China in 2018 and devastated their swine population, Richt said.

“Fifty percent of the Chinese pigs were dead,” Richt said. “And China produces half of the world’s pork. So 25% of the pig population was eliminated.” 

Richt said the disease has extreme consequences for agricultural systems, humans and global economies.

“This is not only work which protects animal health, but also human health,” Richt said.

Waithaka Mwangi, professor of diagnostic medicine pathobiology, said he is also leading research focusing on developing vaccines protecting against the bovine parainfluenza virus and bovine viral diarrhea virus in cattle.

“These two diseases cause respiratory disease,” Mwangi said. “During when [cattle] are being shipped into feedlots the animals become vulnerable to secondary infections with bacteria and with fungal pathogens, resulting in pneumonia and heavy usage of antibiotics.”

Mwangi said the goal of his research is to create a new vaccine effective against all bovine parainfluenza virus and bovine viral diarrhea virus strains.

“Those vaccines have been in the market for decades,” Mwangi said. “However, those vaccines have not been able to significantly reduce the prevalence of the viruses … meaning that there’s something wrong with those vaccines.”

Mwangi said the grant is helping K-State continue previous research on the two viruses and has made the university a leader in animal vaccine development. 

“[The university] has not only the necessary facilities and track record, but it also has a competent faculty and the track record that has enabled these kind of projects actually to thrive,” Mwangi said. 

Creating vaccines for animals has positive effects on human health, Richt said. 

“U.S. agricultural systems are critical,” Richt said. “You know, if you don’t have food, within four days, you have anarchy.”

Mwangi said without vaccine development people would see negative effects around the world.

“It would negatively impact food security and job security, of course,” Mwangi said. “It comes not only to the farmers but also to the nation.”

Madden said working for Richt taught him skills only hands-on experience can provide.

“We are very fortunate at K-State to have cultivated and really sort of established a premier veterinary disease research faculty and facilities,” Madden said. “That’s something that’s taken decades to do and Kansas State is now really a world leader in some of the diseases that we research here like African swine fever.”