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Scientists Speak - International Day of Women and Girls in Science - Lunney
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ARS Celebrates International Women and Girls in Science Day: Lipstick on a Healthy Pig! -  Controlling Parasites and Preventing PRRS

Joan Lunney, Supervisory Research Scientist, ARS Animal Parasitic Diseases Lab (Beltsville, MD)

Dr. Joan Lunney is a Supervisory Research Scientist and an internationally recognized authority on pig immunology and genomics. Her research focuses on swine immunology, genomics, and resistance to diseases, particularly to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus (PRRSV). She coleads the US National Pork Board funded PRRS Host Genomics Consortium (PHGC) to assess the role of genetics in pig resistance and susceptibility to PRRSV infection, pathology and growth effects. She is part of the USDA funded PRRS Coordinated Agricultural Project (PRRS CAP) with over 20 labs nationally working to develop creative solutions for PRRS control and prevention. She expanded the PHGC effort to functional genomics and proteomics and overall swine health in collaboration with Canadian scientists; the latter funded through Genome Canada and Genome Alberta/ALMA. She works domestically as well as internationally with industry, particularly through the National Pork Board and PigGen Canada, Inc., and animal health and breeding companies.

What is the objective of your project?

“The overall goal of my USDA supported research has been to assure safe pork meat and to improve the health of pigs in production. I started working on preventing parasitic infections of pigs, first on Trichinella spiralis and later on Toxoplasma gondii infections. These zoonotic (can transfer between species) infections were a source of human disease. The good news is that with increased biosecurity in US pig production facilities these infectious parasites are not found in most production pigs. As a result of this success I switched my research focus and started working on porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) infection, the economically most important disease of pigs worldwide. I now work to identify host genetic and immune factors associated with increased resistance of pigs to viral infection and improved responses to PRRS vaccination.”

Can you tell us about your research project and the international collaboration involved?

"I have been a pig immunologist since I joined USDA. To perform experiments our lab requires having monoclonal antibody (mAb) and molecular reagents to quantitate immune responses to infection and vaccination. I work with colleagues in the USA, Europe and the UK to verify reactivity of all of our mAbs. We held 3 international workshops (chaired successively by a US woman (me), a German male, and a UK woman), to work with shared reagents and comparison tests that resulted in international standard panels of mAbs. Now we have a US UK joint grant to develop more mAbs; this time targeting swine immune proteins (cytokines, chemokines). With quarterly teleconference calls and regular emails we set joint priorities and share experimental protocols so we can get the best productivity. Our tri-annual International Veterinary Immunology Symposia provided essential means of communicating progress and highlighted new approaches for disease control and vaccine improvement.

For our genomic resistance studies we first had to have a swine genome reference sequence. That required a major international effort for sequencing the pig and included annotating the sequence, particularly the immunome; the collaboration produced a Nature paper with 135 authors. To assess PRRS responses we developed an international consortium with teams in the US (BARC, Kansas, Iowa), Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan), UK, and the Netherlands with students/postdocs from the US, China, Belgium, Korea, and Brazil. We depend on regular phone, email, Skype contacts and in person meetings at the yearly PRRS Symposia and Plant and Animal Genome meetings. Our success in identifying genetic control of PRRS resistance led directly to an international project with our Korean partners."

How has your work with international partners benefitted your project? What skills/expertise/other contributions have they brought to this research?

“Complex immune and genomic studies require many skills and partners from universities and the commercial sector. Kansas State and Saskatchewan labs worked with pig breeding companies to get pigs with known genetic backgrounds and then planned the viral infections and proper sampling and storage procedures. Our lab at BARC focused on DNA genotyping with a commercial lab and immune and gene expression studies using sera and RNA. Data generated from 25 trials of 200 pigs each with 9-15 sampling points require extensive statistical analyses correlating genotype with extensive phenotypes across multiple days post infection. Iowa State and Alberta scientists provide the advanced genomic statistical analyses, and the UK and Netherlands proposed novel models of disease tolerance.”

What are some of the critical research areas that still need to be addressed?

“Having immune reagents and genome sequences is only the starting point. If we want to control PRRS in US, UK, Korean or Chinese pigs we need to identify better vaccines or use genomics to select for disease resistant stock. This requires statistically valid animal infection and vaccination studies, comprehensive pig and tissue/blood phenotypic analyses, and in-depth analyses of the resultant data to identify relevant changes and protective versus pathologic mechanisms associated with the infection or vaccination response. Targeted studies are needed to follow leads and verify that potential mechanisms are correct or need to be modified to account for differences. Our studies have mostly been performed on pigs infected in biosafety level 2 facilities. Once mechanisms are proposed we need to affirm that they are active in field conditions. The latter requires collaboration from producers to tests pigs and vaccines in their facilities.”

Since we’re commemorating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, our audience will be thinking about the role and impact of women in science, and what the particular challenges are that they may face. What is one thing that you would like to share, or advice you may have, about women in science, or for women and girls who are considering a career in science?  

“Trust yourself and your skills. Pursue an area of science that you enjoy and want to pursue. You’ll spend a lot of time investigating mechanisms and procedures. Be open to alternative explanations and be willing to develop alternative theories and experiments to test them.”