Scientist's eureka moment led to E. coli vaccine for cows

Cheryl Chan ,  Canwest News Service

Published: Monday, November 03, 2008


Source of Article:

VANCOUVER - The first-ever vaccine against a deadly E. coli strain - approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last week - was conceived by a microbiologist at the University of B.C.

Dr. Brett Finlay, a professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories, was out for a run about a decade ago when he had a eureka moment on how to reduce cases of infection caused by E. coli O157: H7.

"It dawned on me that we should vaccinate the cows, not the people, because cows carry the organisms and that's how they spread the disease," said Finlay from his Richmond home Sunday.

"It's a cow vaccine for a human disease. That's part of the novelty and uniqueness of it."

E. coli O157 live harmlessly in the intestines of cows. In humans, however, they release a toxin that can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, kidney failure and in severe cases, multiple organ failure and death.

E. coli O157 is the same strain found in the contaminated water supply in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000 in which 2,500 residents were infected and seven died.

It is also responsible for a recent outbreak at a Harvey's restaurant in North Bay, Ont., which affected more than 200 people. In September, 50 people fell ill in Ontario, Michigan and Illinois after an outbreak linked to contaminated lettuce.

Finlay's research eventually led to the vaccine called Econiche, which is produced by Ontario-based biopharmaceutical company Bioniche Life Sciences.

The vaccine inhibits the growth of the bacteria in cows, reducing the amount shed into the environment through manure, and thus reducing the risk to humans. People can contract the bacteria from contaminated food and water, eating improperly cooked meat and through direct animal contact, such as in petting zoos and fairs.

"It prevents them from colonizing," said Finlay. "One goes in and one comes out, as opposed to one going in and tens and hundreds of billions coming out."

While the vaccine is already available to Canadian cattle farmers and veterinarians, its implementation is still up for discussion, said Finlay, because it's a cattle vaccine for a human disease.

"The cows aren't getting sick so Joe Cattle Farmer would ask why should I vaccinate cows when they're fine," he said.

But Finlay noted that vaccination would serve the interests of the North American meat industry, which recalls about 40 million pounds of ground meat annually.

The vaccine costs $10 per cow and is administered in three injections.



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