Can David Asper’s research help protect our global food and water supply?

A graduate student in veterinary microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan, Asper is working on a new cattle vaccine that may potentially stop E. coli at its source.

Asper’s research builds on the work of his supervisor, Andrew Potter, PhD. As director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization–International Vaccine Centre, Dr. Potter helped create the first cattle vaccine against E. coli O157, which prevents bacteria from attaching to, and colonizing in, a cow’s intestines.

Human illness occurs when meat becomes contaminated during slaughter or if feces mix with groundwater, thereby polluting drinking water, swimming water and/or food supplies. Infections can be mild, but some are severe to life-threatening.

“The E. coli O157 vaccine is the first of its kind worldwide and is expected to significantly lessen the amount of E. coli O157 present in food products and also in the environment,” Dr. Potter says.

But O157, while the most prevalent E. coli strain in North America, is one of hundreds of bacteria that cause disease by producing Shiga toxin (STEC). Even healthy cows can carry STEC bacteria, so identification of infected cattle can prove difficult.

“Right now, STEC bacteria is the No. 1 cause of renal [kidney] failure in children around the world,” Asper says. “It affects adults, too, but children are the most susceptible.”

Asper’s vaccine prototype could protect cattle against several non-O157 bacteria. It will be tested on mice and cattle over 3 to 5 years.

“We can protect humans by vaccinating animals before they come in contact with the pathogen,” he says. “I think that’s very important work that will lead to a lot fewer infections.”

Beef and dairy producers could also benefit from Asper’s work. When STEC is found in just one meat sample, beef processors are required to destroy the entire shipment—a significant cost to farmers.

Photo by Scott Bell