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Poultry Health Tools: Biomarkers and bioactives

Scientists develop new tools to boost bird health.


January 20, 2022
By Jane Robinson

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Administration of a bioactive agent to a broiler chick at AAFC Lethbridge Research and Development Centre by CPRC-funded graduate student Sarah Zaytsoff (left) and AAFC technician Tara Shelton (right). PHOTo: Dr. Douglas Inglis

Reducing the impact of poultry diseases usually focuses on treating specific pathogens. But an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) team is approaching the challenge by looking at the consequences, not the cause, of disease to develop new tools and techniques that will help producers boost bird health without the need for antibiotics. 

They are particularly interested in intestinal inflammation that is often triggered when a bird is battling a pathogen (viruses, bacteria or parasites) that can cause intestinal illness. Inflammation sets off a domino effect of consequences that can be costly for the bird’s health and welfare and ultimately, the farm operation.  

“We believe that targeting the bird’s physiological response to pathogens – specifically intestinal inflammation – with non-antibiotic bioactives has the potential to be an effective and broad-spectrum strategy to improve bird health and productivity, and reduce antibiotic use,” says Dr. Douglas Inglis, an AAFC scientist specializing in enteric microbiology and intestinal health at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre who is leading a five-year research project.

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Inglis and his team are developing innovative new tools to help Canadian poultry producers deal with the impact of intestinal inflammation. In conjunction with their research to develop non-antibiotic bioactives, they are also identifying factors that predispose chickens to disease, as a way to improve intestinal health, so birds are better equipped to fight disease pressure.

Their work is particularly timely as the Canadian and global poultry industries continue to search for new options to treat bacterial infections that don’t depend on antibiotic treatment. 

Practical alternatives to antibiotics
The overall goal of this research is to develop effective and non-antibiotic strategies to boost the bird’s own immune system and reduce inflammatory diseases. They are working with broilers and layers, and currently focusing on younger birds to see if they are able to modulate the immune system to provide a long-term benefit. Their findings are also relevant and applicable for turkeys. 

The research project has covered a lot of ground in the last four years. Inglis and team have identified biomarkers that are predictors of bird health. They have also identified a number of bioactive molecules that show promise as an antibiotic alternative for regulating acute and chronic inflammation in chickens. And they have developed new delivery technology for potential on-farm use.

Biomarkers to predict health
Biomarkers are biological indicators of health that are valuable when there is a correlation with a disease – like blood pressure as a predictor of cardiovascular health in people. The use of biomarkers in human medicine is well developed, but is in its infancy in poultry production. In this aspect of their research, the team looked at biomarkers found naturally in a bird’s blood or tissues signalling an abnormal process that’s predictive of disease.

Some of these indicators are biomarkers in birds that indicate stress. “Stress is known to cause significant changes in the bird’s metabolism and immune function, leading to poor performance and increased disease risks,” Inglis says. “I was surprised through our research about the profound effect that stress has on the physiology of birds and on their ability to mitigate disease.” 

Inglis and team have found that stress has a significant effect on the onset and severity of a number of poultry diseases, including necrotic enteritis. That’s why they’ve focused on identifying biomarkers that indicate a bird’s predisposition to stress and disease. Their goal is to identify biomarkers to be used on-farm by producers as another health management tool. 

“We are emphasizing the use of biomarkers with bird samples that are easy to collect on the farm, like feathers, so producers are able to monitor the health status of their flock before disease occurs, and use the information to objectively evaluate the need for treatment strategies and their effectiveness,” Inglis says.

To date, they’ve detected multiple biomarkers of stress and disease in chickens, and plan to test these in simulated and actual commercial settings. If the results show promise as a practical tool for producers, they’ll look at partnerships to bring the technology to market. “An on-farm diagnostic kit that uses biomarkers could be two to five years away,” Inglis predicts. 

The potential of bioactives
Another key part of the project is testing various bioactive molecules naturally produced by birds that could help modulate acute or chronic intestinal inflammation. Hand in hand with testing the bioactives, Inglis and the team are developing novel technologies that would deliver bioactives directly to the site where action is needed. For intestinal inflammation this would involve administering bioactives through feed or water, with the delivery technologies targeting the agents to specific locations of the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., sites of inflammation) to achieve maximum effectiveness. 

“Besides bioactives delivered as therapeutics, we’re also focused on developing bioactives that target inflammation to provide growth promotion and prophylactic effects for birds. Our goal is to provide practical, effective and non-antibiotic strategies to prevent and treat disease,” Inglis says. 

Closer to commercialization
As the project enters its final year, Inglis and team are looking to move closer to potential commercialization of some of their discoveries. They will be evaluating technologies under conditions that simulate commercial operations, before transitioning to on-farm evaluations. 

This research is funded by the Canadian Poultry Research Council as part of the Poultry Science Cluster which is supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.