U. of Georgia Researchers Close in on Breakthrough Vaccine with Help from
PHOENIX, May 2 /CNW/ - University of Georgia scientists are finalizing
development of a new vaccine that could effectively eliminate in companion
bird populations a debilitating and often fatal viral disease called
psittacine beak and feather disease.
The virus has decimated some free-ranging populations of cockatoos and
has historically been a problem for companion-bird lovers from around the
globe. The virus is not contagious to humans or other pets.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, more
than 16 million birds live as companions in American households.
More than 40 species of free-ranging and companion birds, most notably
lovebirds, cockatoos, eclectus parrots and African gray parrots, are readily
susceptible to infection. The virus also can infect and cause disease in other
psittacine birds such as budgerigars (budgies), Indian ringneck parakeets,
lories, lorikeets and occasionally macaws and Amazon parrots.
The disease, which is transmissible from bird to bird and is not
treatable, attacks a bird's ability to properly grow feathers, beaks and
claws. Feathers deteriorate and fall off and beaks and claws can break and
crumble away or grow soft, making the bird susceptible to life-threatening
secondary infections. The disease can be most fatal to young birds while more
mature birds that have been exposed to the virus can build up immunities and
be protected through their lifetime.
After classifying the cause of this disease as a new family of viruses
(the circoviruses) in the late 1980s, scientists from The University of
Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine developed a state-of-the-art diagnostic
test and then turned their attention to developing a vaccine to prevent
healthy birds from becoming infected in the first place. "PetSmart provided
much needed financial support and other resources to expedite and finalize the
production of the vaccine candidate," said Branson Ritchie, a doctor of
veterinary medicine, Ph.D., and distinguished research professor.
The company donated $300,000 in an undesignated gift to the College of
Veterinary Medicine to be used for research.
"It's one of the most prevalent and debilitating diseases to attack
companion and free-ranging birds," said Dr. Nick Saint-Erne, PetSmart's
quality assurance veterinarian. "Because it affects such a broad spectrum of
species, a vaccine will have a positive, far-reaching effect on the health and
quality of life of birds everywhere," he said.
Researchers have long sought to unlock the keys to a vaccine, made
difficult because the virus "was so difficult to kill," Ritchie said.
Initially, researchers derived a vaccine by purifying the virus from the
tissues of infected birds. While the methodology worked and experiments using
this vaccine proved that vaccinated birds could develop protective immunity,
the tissue-derived vaccine was far too dangerous and impractical for
widespread use, he said.
The breakthrough came when Ritchie's team was able to express portions of
the viral proteins - a necessary building block for the vaccine - in a
repeatable, easily qualified laboratory system.
With laboratory work now successfully completed, the University of
Georgia Research Foundation has begun the licensing and registration process
for the vaccine. That process could be completed by the middle of 2008, and
includes manufacturing a vaccine and testing it on birds that are hatched in
captivity and destined for sale.
"We'll be very happy when it's in a bottle and on a shelf," Ritchie said,
referring to successful registration and commercial availability of the
vaccine to bird breeders, medical care providers, pet stores and bird owners.
"The vaccine will not only greatly improve the ability of companion birds to
live long and healthy lives, it might also have applications in the field to
help protect endangered species of susceptible birds," he said.
PetSmart, Inc. (NASDAQ: PETM) is the largest specialty pet retailer of
services and solutions for the lifetime needs of pets. The company operates
more than 908 pet stores in the United States and Canada, a growing number of
in-store PetsHotel cat and dog boarding facilities, and is a leading online
provider of pet supplies and pet care information (www.petsmart.com). PetSmart
provides a broad range of competitively priced pet food and pet products; and
offers complete pet training, pet grooming, pet boarding, doggie day camp and
pet adoption services.
For further information: PetSmart, Inc. Jennifer Ericsson, 623-587-2177
(24-hour media line)