Scientists make inroads in study of swine virus

By Miranda Leybourne
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Brandon Sun

New information about a devastating disease affecting pigs across the world has been uncovered and could lead to a better vaccine against it.

After the University of Manitoba collaborated with the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, Brian Mark, dean of the U of M’s faculty of science, and Marjolein Kikkert, an associate professor of virology at Leiden, made a pertinent discovery about the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV).

PRRSV, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, is a viral disease of swine that causes poor reproduction, results in pneumonia in pigs that have been weaned, and leads to a reduced rate of growth and increased mortality rate in pigs of all ages. The agency considers transportation an important risk factor for transferring the virus between farms.

Across the country, PRRSV costs the pork industry around $130 million per year, the agency’s website states.

“This disease in pigs is important worldwide and is economically fairly significant,” Kikkert said in a press release last month.

Originally, Mark and Kikkert set out to improve vaccines for PRRSV. They and their teams studied protease, a type of protein that the disease uses to suppress a pig’s immunity, which leads to severe illness.

By changing the structure of the protein, researchers will be able to create altered strains of the virus that new vaccines can be based upon.

Mark and Kikkert have previously conducted similar research on coronaviruses, which also use proteases to dampen the immune systems of humans and animals, and have designed new vaccines for those viruses.

While the strategy they used to develop other vaccines didn’t work, Mark and Kikkert were able to make significant scientific inroads that will lay the foundation for future vaccines.

“What we’ve uncovered is a unique theme of the biology of the virus that researchers need to be aware of as we advance forward with making improved vaccines,” Mark told the Sun.

Kikkert agreed, saying that they learned a lot about how viruses like the PRRSV work.

“It may certainly be a basis for further work into possibilities for improving vaccines against these viruses and coronaviruses,” she said in the release.

The discovery Mark and Kikkert made about the biology of viruses like PRRSV was previously unknown in the biology world, Mark said.

“The information that was gleaned from our studies, that provide information about the biology of how these families of viruses work as a whole, can help contribute to the vaccines against all the viruses that are within that family.”

While Mark and Kikkert have mostly wrapped up their work on PRRSV, they will continue their work on coronaviruses using similar strategies.

And while major scientific breakthroughs are always exciting, more often than not it’s the work that research teams like the ones Mark and Kikkert led that keep moving scientists further into the future.

“Oftentimes it’s three steps forward and then another three sprints, and it’s that good effort by hundreds in a research group … together as a collective that drives this forward,” Mark said.

On top of the satisfaction of uncovering new information that will pave the way for future research teams, Mark said working with scientists from all over the world such as Kikkert is a very exciting part of his job.

“I have collaborators in Australia and Spain, and they each bring to the table a unique skill,” he said. “Together, you can answer much more complex questions than you could ever do on your own.”