After moving to Brisbane to join a companion animal practice, Western Australian Vet, Dr Robyn Hall, decided to pursue her interest in research. Her initial approach to the University of Queensland led to a meeting with Dr Tim Mahony, a Poultry CRC Project Leader. Now a Poultry CRC supported PhD student, Robyn is investigating Essential and non-essential genetic components of the Herpesvirus of Turkeys (HVT) genome. Robyn’s interest was sparked at a young age. “I have always had pet chickens growing up, and became interested in Marek’s disease after we had a number of cases develop in our birds” she said.
HVT has been commonly used as a vaccine to protect commercial chicken flocks against tumour formation, immunosuppression and mortality caused by virulent Marek’s disease virus (MDV), as HVT is non-pathogenic for chickens. Robyn explains, “Although HVT is widely used as a vaccine vector, and has been since the 1970s, the emergence of MDV1 strains of increasing virulence has resulted in vaccine breakthroughs, first to HVT-based vaccines and then to bivalent HVT/MDV2 vaccines. HVT is an ideal vaccine vector due to its lack of pathogenicity, ability to be administered in ovo, large viral genome, persistent viraemia and cross-protection against MDV1.”
There is a need for additional vaccination strategies against Marek’s disease based on HVT because of the risk of further evolution of MDV1. By replacing non-essential regions of HVT with foreign DNA, this research aims to induce protection against multiple diseases such as necrotic enteritis, Marek’s disease, avian influenza, Newcastle disease and infectious bursal disease. “We can also use HVT as a delivery vector for other biologically active molecules for example to generally prime the immune system against a broad range of pathogens” said Robyn. “But for these techniques to be most effective, we need to know how much of HVT can be replaced and where the most appropriate locations are within HVT to insert foreign DNA”.
Delivering additional vaccination strategies to industry will be a major outcome of this research. Having talented and passionate people like Robyn within Poultry CRC partner institutions facilitates the transfer of practical applications to Australia’s poultry industry. “The last 18 months have been a very exciting time for me and I have greatly enjoyed my transition to research with Dr Mahony’s team and the Poultry CRC” said Robyn. “Although I am only a recent addition to the CRC, I can only see my interest in poultry industry increasing from here.”