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Poor farming communities have a shot at a better life



Dr Ivy Tshilwane, an inspiring senior researcher in the Vaccines and Diagnostics Development Programme at the Agricultural Research Council-Onderstepoort Veterinary Research (ARC-OVR), aims to continue conducting multidisciplinary research that will create new knowledge and technologies that contribute to the improvement of community livelihoods and food security in South Africa.

Dr Tshilwane, who holds a PhD in Veterinary Tropical Diseases from the University of Pretoria, focused her PhD studies on developing new generation vaccines for the control of heartwater, a livestock tick-borne disease.

She has since continued her research at ARC-OVR on the development of new generation vaccines for livestock diseases, which are required to replace expensive impractical vaccines that are not easily accessible to poor farming communities because of their need for cold chain storage and their high cost of production.

As an aspiring veterinary immunologist – who applies innovative technologies like nanotechnology, biotechnology and transcriptome sequencing to solve the socio-economic problems faced by poor farming communities – she has contributed significantly to research towards the development of an improved vaccine for heartwater. This has resulted in an effective prototype DNA vaccine that can protect sheep against heartwater infection.

“The prototype DNA vaccine was designed to be cheap to produce and to not require cold chain storage, making it suitable for use by poor small-scale farmers as well,” said Dr Tshilwane, who was recently awarded research funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Vaccine for heartwater

The project to develop a vaccine for heartwater started because the current vaccine is not suitable for poor farming communities.

“It is a live blood vaccine that requires a cold chain to be effective, administration by a trained professional, thorough monitoring of animals following administration and immediate treatment with antibiotics if animals develop a temperature or start to get sick. Most under-resourced farmers lack the skills and knowledge to carry out these requirements,” Dr Tshilwane explained.

“Research into an alternative improved vaccine thus provides a solution for the broader farming sector and the possibility of marketing the vaccine to other countries where heartwater is present or there is a possibility of livestock contracting it due to the presence of the tick vector. In areas like these, the blood vaccine cannot be used because it comes with the risk of introducing the disease to these areas,” she added.

Challenges relating to Dr Tshilwane’s research at the ARC-OVR are mostly related to acquiring funding for research. “We have to start with basic research before translational research, which is the stage that we are at. This can be overcome by involving other stakeholders and we conducted our research in collaboration with Onderstepoort Biological Products (vaccine manufacture), Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.”

The next step for heartwater is to further improve the vaccine so that it can be easily administered and be effective following a single dose.

“The DNA vaccine that we have designed requires the use of a gene gun for administration and multiple administrations to be effective. The use of the gene gun needs to be administered by a trained professional, which adds to the cost of the vaccine and will not be practical for poor, under-resourced farmers. Also, multiple administrations come with a risk of lack of compliance.

“That’s why we are investigating ways to have the vaccine administered only by syringe, preferably via intramuscular injection. We are also investigating the use of biodegradable nanoparticles as a delivery system for the vaccine, which will enable single-dose administration. The nanoparticles have the ability to slowly release DNA, over a prolonged period of time, which will ensure that the vaccine is effective following a single administration,” Dr Tshilwane explained.

These new generation recombinant vaccines contain part of the pathogen’s genetic material (DNA). They are thermostable, do not require a trained professional to administer and do not require multiple administrations to be effective. “The thermostability is important because most vaccines require an uninterrupted cold chain for transportation and storage to remain effective,” said Dr Tshilwane.

“Most under-resourced farmers do not have the necessary equipment and knowledge or skills to achieve this uninterrupted cold chain. If the vaccine can be effective without the need for ultra-low temperature storage (-80°C), smallholder farmers will be able to access the vaccine as well. Having a vaccine that can be easily administered makes it cheaper because farmers can administer the vaccine themselves,” she added.

The ARC

The ARC was established in 1990 through the Agricultural Research Act 86 of 1990 (as amended by Act 27 of 2001). It is the premier agricultural research institution in South Africa and is made up of several research campuses which carry out different agricultural research.

The ARC-OVR provides veterinary diagnostic services and carries out world-class veterinary research, focusing on the development and improvement of vaccines and diagnostic tests. ARC-OVR is the collaborating centre for the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), which is responsible for the surveillance and control of animal diseases in Africa, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, which is responsible for emergency preparedness for transboundary animal diseases for Africa.

The ARC’s core mandate is to conduct research; drive research and development and technology development; disseminate information to promote agriculture and related industries; contribute to a better quality of life; ensure natural resource conservation; and alleviate poverty. Its mandate is met through undertaking research aimed at the development and improvement of vaccines; the publication of its scientific findings; technology transfer through training and mentoring students; and engagement with relevant stakeholders, including farmers, funding agencies and relevant professional bodies.

Dr Tshilwane joined the ARC as a PhD student in 2005. Prior to that, she obtained a MSc degree (biochemistry) from the University of Pretoria and a BSc Honours degree (biochemistry) from the University of Limpopo. She worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Pretoria during her studies and was awarded the NRF and Canon Collins Education Trust for Southern Africa scholarships.

Dr Tshilwane’s typical day involves planning and performing laboratory and/or animal experiments; analysing data generated from the experiments; attending laboratory meetings to discuss experiment results; troubleshooting experiments that are not working, through discussion with fellow researchers; and reading scientific publications.

Her work is guided by the National Development Plan 2030 and she ensures that these policies are implemented through her research on the development of cheap and effective vaccines. “These have the potential to alleviate poverty in our communities because farmers will be able increase production of livestock and other food-producing animals. Their livelihoods and income generated from farming will also improve,” she says.

In addition to research, researchers carry out information sessions for farmers where they are taught about diseases, how to treat and prevent them, and the differences between treatment and vaccinations. “This helps our under-resourced farmers to improve their knowledge and accept the products we are developing for them,” she added.

Challenging times

As a woman, Dr Tshilwane has faced many challenges during her career and she explained that a career as a research scientist requires a prolonged period of study. “Studying from a junior degree to PhD level can take more than 10 years. This requires funds and, in most instances, one does not have an income. For most women this can be difficult, especially if they would like to get married or start a family,” she said.

Her advice to women hoping to follow a similar career path is to apply for scholarships that also provide stipends, work part-time at universities or other places and make sacrifices in their personal lives.

“Once you start working as a research scientist, you need to develop yourself into an independent researcher. This is often difficult for women due to a lack of support from experienced scientists. Try to find an experienced and willing mentor to support you,” she said.

As for the future, Dr Tshilwane plans to venture into research on ways to reduce antibiotic resistance in poultry farming. “Vaccines have been suggested as one of the possible solutions for reducing the extensive use of antibiotics in poultry production,” said Dr Tshilwane, who was born and raised in Ga-Ramoshwane, a small village in Limpopo.

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