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Nebraska Duo Eyes End to Costly Swine Disease
Nebraska Ag Connection - 05/29/2020

Two University of Nebraska--Lincoln researchers have received $1 million in grant funding to continue research that could lead to the development of vaccines and genetic-selection tools to fight some of the world's costliest swine diseases.

Huskers Daniel Ciobanu and Hiep Vu have each recently been awarded a three-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It is the third NIFA grant for each.

Ciobanu, an associate professor of molecular genetics in the Department of Animal Science, is working to identify the role a pig's genes play in resistance to viral diseases. His research mostly focuses on porcine circovirus 2, a pathogen found in global swine populations that costs U.S. pork producers more than $250 million annually.

Vu, an assistant professor in the Nebraska Center for Virology and Department of Animal Science, is engaged in developing vaccines to protect pigs against viruses such as swine influenza and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, which affect swine production worldwide.

Their work may seem to go against each other in some ways, Ciobanu said. If the gene variant that makes an animal susceptible to a viral disease can be identified and over time eliminated from the swine population, is a vaccine even needed? But Ciobanu said their research actually complements each other.

"Hiep and I will have totally opposite kinds of objectives, but they tie together way more than other people believe," Ciobanu said. "You can use both vaccination and host genome profiling to provide a better immune response. You can vaccinate only certain animals that are susceptible, and you don't need to vaccinate everyone. This is valid in humans and could be valid in animals, as well."

Ciobanu's research will build upon data he began collecting eight years ago from more than 1,000 pigs infected with porcine circovirus 2 at the university's Animal Science Complex. After genotyping the pigs with 60,000 data markers and conducting extensive DNA and RNA sequencing, a breakthrough discovery was made. The team has identified a gene called Synapogyrin 2 that is associated with resistance to porcine circovirus 2, the smallest virus that infects mammalian cells.

Early identification of pigs susceptible to the virus would improve the general health and welfare of swine populations worldwide, Ciobanu said, with potential benefits for other livestock species and even humans.

"If the swine industry can use this gene variant or mutation as a DNA marker to select for disease resistance, then they can assess its impact in cattle and other livestock and even in humans," Ciobanu said.

The next phase of Ciobanu's work will be done in vitro, using cell lines engineered with different mutations of Synapogyrin 2. Ciobanu and his team will test the different cell lines to see if the gene impacts susceptibility for viruses other than porcine circovirus 2.

Vu will use his grant to utilize molecular methods in his efforts to engineer a broadly protective vaccine that could protect against multiple, if not all, variants of swine influenza virus.

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