Synthetic DNA treatment safeguards chicks: Meet the expert behind the research

CANADA - Kalhari Bandara Goonewardene is a PhD candidate at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada completing her doctoral research at the Department of Veterinary Pathology under the supervision of Dr Susantha Gomis
calendar icon 2 March 2019
clock icon 8 minute read

Ms Goonewardene recently won the BioOne Ambassador Award for 2018 which recognises early-career authors working to communicate the importance and impact of their research to communities beyond their fields of expertise.

What inspired you to research and work in the poultry industry?

While I was a veterinary undergraduate in the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, I was inspired by my professors to become a researcher and a teacher. My classmates used to tell me that I was a good teacher. I loved immunology, microbiology and public health, and I aimed to work in those areas as a researcher. We had little practical exposure to the poultry industry during the veterinary degree programme at that time. As a result, I did an internship at the Ceylon Grain Elevators (one of the leading poultry companies in the country) to gain more practical knowledge. My time spent there opened my eyes about the poultry industry. That was a great area to put all my interests in immunology, microbiology and public health together, so I began my research career as a graduate student in poultry immunology.

Please describe your research and what it means for producers.

The bigger picture of my research is to develop an alternative to antibiotics in the poultry industry. As you may know, the poultry industry used antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections in young poultry birds by administering them in the hatcheries or in feed. Constant use of antibiotics led to several human health concerns such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment. As a result, the poultry industry worldwide is gradually reducing the use of antibiotics, particularly from preventative use and the chicken industry is actively looking for alternatives to ensure poultry health and welfare.

In my research I delivered a synthetic DNA called CpG-ODN using a nebulising chamber directly to the lungs of newly hatched baby chicks. This process stimulated the chicks’ frontline defence mechanism - their “innate immune system” - and significantly protected them against a deadly dose of E. coli. The treatment defended the chicks during their first week of life: protection was initiated within six hours of inhaling the synthetic DNA and lasted five days. It helped to improve the chicks’ clinical condition while clearing bacteria rapidly without any adverse effects on growth. As a next step, we developed a large-scale device and applied our laboratory-scale research to larger field trials. We believe that this technique will help producers by safeguarding poultry health, and the public by minimising the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment.

What were some of the unique challenges you faced during your research and trials, and how did you overcome them?

First, the challenge was to develop an effective and practical delivery technique that could deliver the synthetic DNA with minimal handling and stress to the chicks. There were so many failed attempts in identifying a suitable technique, but we didn’t give up. My research technician and I worked together to develop the small-scale apparatus using a human nebuliser and an acrylic chamber that we made in the lab. We used our imaginations and innovative thinking to build the unit.

It was challenging to develop the animal model to test the technique. I read papers, learned from other researchers and did multiple experiments to reach this point. Lots of failures led to success at the end!

My research always required a lot of hands. I had to rely on my research group members a lot. If not for their contributions, none of this work would have been possible.

Applying the laboratory-scale work to industry scale, we required a lot of multidisciplinary collaboration. The University of Saskatchewan’s Innovation Enterprise unit connected us with engineers. We worked with an engineering company, the department of mechanical engineering at U of S, commercial poultry hatcheries and producers to perform field trials.

Last but not least, we couldn’t have done any of the work without funding and in-kind support. The following funding agencies and organisations provided generous funding to conduct our research successfully: the Western Economic Diversification Canada (WEDC), Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan, Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA – currently Alberta Agriculture and Forestry) and Canadian Poultry Research Council (CPRC).

Do you feel antibiotic-free production is both possible and practical in the long term?

Well, there are many challenges to overcome in order to progress antibiotic-free production in the long run. They include the development of effective alternatives that can prevent harmful bacterial infections in birds and maintenance of good management practices with strict biosecurity in farms. However, baby chicks have poorly developed immune systems just like human babies. They often get bacterial infections from the environment, so they need to be treated when they’re sick. My personal understanding is that we will still need antibiotics as treatment options during infections in order to ensure the birds’ wellbeing.

Could you describe what the majority of producers are currently doing to phase out antibiotics in production?

I could say that Canada has been very proactive and has taken responsible measures to reduce antibiotic use in the poultry industry. Chicken Farmers of Canada have voluntarily withdrawn from the preventive use of Category 1 antibiotics (the most vital class for human health) since May 2014. By the end of 2018, they will withdraw Category 2 antibiotics from use in preventing bacterial infections. A goal has also been set to eliminate Category 3 antibiotics from preventative use by the end of 2020. They have been reviewing and implementing best management practices on farms in order to minimise bacteria in the environment. Also, the chicken industry in Canada has been actively supporting and funding research projects that aim at developing effective alternatives to antibiotics.

What are the most significant challenges posed by phasing out antibiotics?

The biggest challenge is ensuring the health and wellbeing of birds living in a susceptible environment. As I mentioned, young birds are predisposed to bacterial infections. Without preventative antibiotics, certain harmful pathogens can take the upper hand and cause disease. This results in mortality, poor weight gain, poor uniformity in flocks and condemnations at processing that ultimately cause economic losses to the producer. If we are phasing out antibiotics, we need to responsibly develop alternative strategies to make sure that the birds remain healthy throughout the production period.

What do you find particularly rewarding about what you do?

My research is supported by both federal agencies and the poultry industry in Canada. It’s very rewarding to know that we have done justice to the industry’s funding and are paying them back with a practical solution to one of the most critical ongoing problems. They are delighted to see the fruits of their investments.

At the same time, thanks to this research project, I have had the opportunity to directly work with multidisciplinary groups such as engineers, poultry veterinarians, poultry hatcheries and poultry producers - so I consider it a one-of-a-kind opportunity for a grad student. The poultry producers, hatcheries, poultry veterinarians and other professionals related to the industry always tell us how thankful they are for the efforts we are making with our research. That’s very rewarding to hear.

What’s more wonderful is to see our hard work being recognised nationally and globally. A lot of hands contributed to make this project a success so I’m very proud of our team spirit and the excellent supervision provided by my supervisor, Dr Susantha Gomis.

What’s next for you?

I will be concluding my PhD thesis by the end of this year. My family is very important to me, so I have moved to Calgary with my husband for him to start school there. I’m looking for an opportunity to begin postdoctoral training at the University of Calgary at the moment. My goal is to gain hands-on training and a better understanding of areas of immunology and microbiology so, hopefully, I will find an opportunity there. There are a few goals to achieve in my personal life and career as a veterinarian and a researcher in the next few years. Life’s full of surprises so I’m excited to see where it takes me next!

Ryan Johnson

Editor at The Poultry Site

Ryan worked in conservation from 2008 to 2017, during which time he operated a rainbow trout hatchery and helped to maintain public and protected green spaces in Canada for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. As editor of The Poultry Site, he now writes about challenges and opportunities in agriculture across the globe.

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