By Kristy Dorsey

A single cell parasite from the deserted Scottish island of St Kilda could hold the key to boosting the effectiveness of existing and new vaccines in the multi-billion pound market to control diseases among livestock.

Isolated by a team from the University of Edinburgh led by professor Keith Matthews, the harmless Trypanosoma melophagium parasite spreads efficiently throughout the body of an animal. Researchers believe that using it to deliver vaccine proteins will deliver better host immunity, limiting the need for follow-on booster inoculations.

The university is working with AgriTech investment specialist Roslin Technologies to develop the parasite as a vehicle to host proteins for a wide range of maladies, whether transmitted by virus, bacterium or parasite. They are initially focusing on creating a vaccine to tackle PPRV, a highly infectious disease that threatens 80 per cent of the world’s sheep and goats, and is a significant problem in Asia and Africa.

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“Our major advance is that we will be able to immunise sheep against a wide range of pathogens using a harmless organism that they naturally harbour,” Mr Matthews said.

Located 40 miles from the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda was evacuated of its inhabitants in 1930 and is now home to wild Soay sheep, among other wildlife. The parasite is spread by a wingless insect and is usually absent in farmed sheep that are routinely dipped to eliminate such infestations.

It is estimated there are approximately two billion small ruminants farmed globally, all of which are subject to challenges from a wide range of infectious diseases. The total global animal vaccine market was worth more than £6 billion in 2018, according to Grand View Research, which includes the world’s one billion sheep and 900 million goats.

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Karen Fairlie-Clarke, innovation and engagement manager for Roslin Technologies, said researchers hope to establish proof of concept for the parasite as a delivery system by early 2021. From there it could be three to five years to reach the commercial market.

“With such huge potential, we are eager to gather together partners who can deploy this technology to improve vaccine performance and increase the number of pathogens that can be targeted,” she added.