Synthetic DNA may stimulate chicks’ immune systems

The Canadian poultry industry could soon have a new and improved way to protect newly hatched chicks from potentially deadly diseases, thanks to the work of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan.

Doctoral student Kalhari Goonewardene and her academic adviser, Susantha Gomis, at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine have been working on a project that uses synthetic DNA to stimulate the immune systems of baby chicks that are exposed to infectious bacteria.

The synthetic DNA is applied as an aerosol mist that baby chicks inhale into their lungs.

In laboratory tests, the treatment defended chicks against E. coli infection during the first week of their lives — a period when new hatchlings are most prone to bacterial infections.

Tests showed that protection was initiated within six hours of inhalation and lasted for five days.

The aerosol treatment has the potential to replace the use of antibiotics as a preventive disease treatment in newly hatched broiler birds.

There is also evidence that the treatment will protect against different bacterial infections, not just E. coli.

“Because their immune system is not well developed, they are very vulnerable,” Goonewardene said.

“We believe that (this treatment) has … the potential to be an alternative to antibiotics.”

The use of antibiotics in the poultry and livestock industries has been linked to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria — a scenario that can impact livestock and human health.

In the past, antibiotics have been used as a prophylaxis to protect birds before they become infected .

However, the Canadian poultry industry is taking pro-active steps aimed at reducing antibiotic use.

In 2014, for example, Chicken Farmers of Canada voluntarily decided to end the use of Category 1 antibiotics as a preventive treatment.

At the end of 2018, the use of Category 2 antibiotics as a preventive treatment will also be withdrawn voluntarily.

Goonewardene was recently named one of five recipients of the inaugural BioOne Ambassador Award.

The global award is presented to early career researchers who excel at communicating the importance and impact of their research beyond their discipline.

The use of an aerosol mist to enhance early immunity in broiler chicks has the potential to address an industry need as well as a public health issue: antibiotic resistance.

It could also have a positive economic impact on the Canadian poultry industry by reducing hatchery mortalities and limiting veterinary costs.

Goonewardene said her next challenge is to develop a large scale nebulizer or mist applicator that can be used by the industry.

With the help of engineers, she and Gomis have already developed a large-scale prototype that has been successfully field tested at two commercial hatcheries in Western Canada.

“Our experience proved that this is a practical and feasible technique,” Goonewardene said.

“What’s exciting is that our efforts will enhance poultry health and welfare and protect public health by minimizing the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the environment.”

Gomis, who spent more than a decade researching the use of synthetic DNA as an immune system stimulant, said Goonewardene’s work is “extremely important” to the poultry industry and to human health.

The development and commercialization of a large-scale nebulizer could improve poultry production practices in Canada and around the world.

“We need to get some feasible way to apply the synthetic DNA on a large scale,” Gomis said.

Innovation Enterprise, a U of S-based agency that specializes in managing and commercializing intellectual property and innovative products, is already working on a strategy to bring the technology to the marketplace.

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