Veterinary researcher receives prestigious grant to study swine disease

August 18th, 2011
Scott Kenney, postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at Virginia Tech, received a USDA grant to study how the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus causes reproductive failure in sows and respiratory diseases in piglets. Credit: Virginia Tech Photo
A researcher in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine has received a prestigious U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) postdoctoral fellowship grant to investigate the molecular mechanisms of pathogenesis behind porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus.

Scott Kenney, postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the vet college, received the two-year, $130,000 grant from the USDA to study how the virus causes reproductive failure in sows and respiratory diseases in piglets.

"The virus infects pigs at early ages and has a major economic impact on the swine industry," said Kenney, who explained that the disease has increased the cost of raising a pig by up to an estimated $18 per head. "Not only does the virus cause the industry to invest more money into raising pigs, but it also reduces the number of piglets from the onset."

Dr. X.J. Meng, mentor of this fellowship grant and a professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology who has studied the disease since the early 1990s, added that porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome is arguably the most economically important global disease for the swine industry. He and Kenney hope to better understand how the virus causes the disease and design better preventive measures.

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome first appeared in 1987. By 1991, researchers had not only discovered that an RNA virus caused the disease but also realized that the virus infecting pigs in the United States was a variant strain of the same virus causing similar symptoms in Europe. In recent years, the virus has caused high fever diseases in pigs in China, leading to high mortality rates and significant economic losses.

"Today, vaccines against porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus are being used worldwide," Meng said. "If the virus infecting a swine herd is genetically similar to the vaccine virus, then the vaccine performs well. Unfortunately, many strains of virus infecting pigs today are genetically different from the one used to create the vaccines. Therefore, we need to develop a better and more efficacious vaccine against this virus."

Although porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus has similarities to the Coronaviridae family of RNA viruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, it cannot spread from animals to humans. Kenney, however, believes that his research on virus-host interactions will have future implications on human health research.

The grant is part of a USDA postdoctoral fellowship that, according to the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Fellowships Grant Program, is designed to "train and develop the next generation of agricultural, forestry, and food scientists through fellowships to outstanding postdoctoral students and to strongly support the intellectual talent needed to meet the challenges facing the nation's agriculture and food systems."

Kenney, who earned his Ph.D. in molecular virology from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and recently worked in Meng's lab on a study of hepatitis E virus pathogenesis, is pursuing an academic career in molecular virology and translational medicine.

Meng's lab studies the molecular mechanisms of viral replication and pathogenesis and develops vaccines against emerging, reemerging, and zoonotic viral diseases. Earlier this year, the lab received a $499,000 grant from the USDA and another $594,000 grant from an animal health company to study porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. In 2006, the lab invented the first USDA fully licensed vaccine against post-weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome in pigs, which is now commercially available worldwide.

Provided by Virginia Tech

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