More Than Connecting Dots

Poultry Health Research Network fosters collaboration
Lianne Appleby
Thursday, 22 August 2013
By
Dr. Shayan Sharif is leader of the new Poultry Health Research Network at the University  of Guelph.
Dr. Shayan Sharif is leader of the new Poultry Health Research Network at the University of Guelph.

The poultry industry could never be accused of resting on its laurels. It seems that every day there are new initiatives being undertaken to ensure that poultry producers have access to information, technology and the people who can help their farms remain successful.

Now, you can add one more initiative to the growing list – the University of Guelph’s Poultry Health Research Network (PHRN). Guelph has had a long-standing commitment to animal health, but now, the PHRN aims to further tighten technology transfer and enhance poultry research by creating a network of experts, consisting of poultry researchers and poultry health specialists, who address problems ranging from very basic biological processes to environmental concerns and industry-relevant issues.

Dr. Shayan Sharif is leader of the PHRN, which was established in 2012.

“What we are basically trying to do is to create a network of people, poultry researchers, who can address any sort of problem from basic to a very applied type of research,” he says. “This network is part of an integrated plan within the university and is a priority for both the Ontario Veterinary College and the University of Guelph. We are attempting to solidify the interactions between researchers and departments.”

The network aims to provide a forum for collaboration and co-operation not only among researchers within Guelph, but also between Guelph and other Canadian campuses. It will also, hopefully, reduce duplication where applicable.

While Sharif admits that there are other similar initiatives in Canada, and one in Georgia, he says that Guelph’s is unique because rather than focusing on production, as the name implies, this one focuses on health. But the idea is that all will complement each other.

The roster for the network currently includes 36 names, each one, says Sharif, being a “poultry health researcher and specialist.” Most participants (who could be approached or volunteer to participate) are from Guelph, with department affiliations varying from pathobiology and animal science to food science and mathematics – even engineering.

“Our team member from engineering is looking at the effect of poultry industries on the environment and human health. The computer science department is looking at modelling of poultry diseases, mathematically, but using computer software.”

The consumer studies and geography departments are also looking at the influence of poultry production on livelihoods of people, especially women in developing countries.

“In Africa, for example, women are the ones who look after raising chickens, while men look after raising cattle, and that actually has something to do with their social status,” says Sharif. “So, the researcher’s hypothesis is that by changing the way poultry is raised, you can [increase] social status.”

Within the network there is also a lot of expertise in vaccine development and diagnostic testing. There are also two industry members, Tim Nelson  (Livestock Research Innovation Corporation, LRIC) and Brue Roberts (Canadian Poultry Research Council, CPRC). Both organizations fully endorse the initiative, along with the Poultry Industry Council.

The ultimate goal of research programs within the PHRN is to increase poultry health in Canada by facilitation and provision of means for production of safe, healthy and ethically produced poultry and poultry products. A key component is that the network is trying to strengthen interaction with industry, and that is also a top priority for the initiative.

Sharif says another item that’s high the to-do list is to create training programs that will help to qualify personnel for specific tasks. Ideally, he sees opportunities for both students and professionals so that they can become qualified via degree or non-degree programs. OVC has already taken steps toward reaching this goal by providing funding to hire a faculty member in avian diseases and health.

“We have managed to justify the hiring of a faculty person, even in this climate of economic downturn,” muses Sharif. “This person will be able to help with promotion, as well as officially being the avian disease specialist.”

Because the initiative is receiving some funding, the OVC will ensure that the network meets its objectives and remains accountable through a quarterly reporting system that goes directly to the Dean of the OVC, Dr. Elizabeth A. Stone. The network is set up similarly to a board. With Sharif as the leader and coordinator, meetings will be called on a fairly regular basis, given the research work and many hats worn by each of its members. Sharif hopes that they can physically get together at least every three to four months.

The network’s first official meet-and-greet, which took place on July 30, was informal, allowing the participants to become more familiar with one another and their respective research. Sharif says he’s also hoping to hold an industry day to showcase the network. This would be an opportunity for industry stakeholders to interact with members and learn more about what they do, and foster and strengthen interactions with industry.

There are no immediate plans to have the PHRN function as an incorporated organization with brick-and-mortar offices, but Sharif says that is a possibility for the future that obviously would require funding and much support from the industry level to ensure it is warranted.

The PHRN now has a website (www.uoguelph.ca/phrn), and a Twitter account will follow, which will highlight network information, news and events.

It is key not to confuse what the PHRN does with organizations like the Poultry Industry Council (PIC), CPRC or LRIC.

The PIC remains very involved in setting poultry research priorities and in developing and delivering programs that put the research results to work for industry more effectively and efficiently. Its board decides what it will and won’t fund.

CPRC’s mission, on the other hand, is to address national marketing boards and processor needs through the creation and implementation of programs for poultry research in Canada – which may also include societal concerns.

Says Tim Nelson, “LRIC’s mandate is to work on behalf of all livestock and poultry in Ontario to deliver a better return on investment for our research dollars. We also take on the administration of research for the various sectors, creating a simplified ‘one-window’ approach to research management from OMAF’s perspective and the research provider’s perspective (University of Guelph).”

Within the university, it also is important not to confuse the PHRN with the pre-existing Poultry Program Team (PPT).

The PPT combines the strengths and resources of Ontario’s poultry industry, the provincial government through OMAFRA and the university itself. Only five people, including Sharif, are a part of that team. The others are Gregoy Bedecarrats, Michele Guerin, Csaba Varga and Al Dam. Sharif says the PHRN is a bigger group who can collaborate and co-operate effectively and efficiently, and while the PPT has similar goals, it does have limited scope and mandate, given the narrower expertise.  

“PPT will not necessarily phase out. At the time it was formed, it was an important initiative. The PHRN will envelope the PPT and I see it as a very well cemented nucleus to the larger group.”

Right now, Sharif says that as the co-ordinator, he is spearheading the PHRN, but that doesn’t mean that his research priorities are overshadowed.

“As a part of our vision, there is the provision for funds for an NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council) industrial chair in poultry health,” says Sharif. “And if that does take place, then the incumbent would take over direction of the whole initiative. They would then have a lot of administrative responsibility and would likely be relieved of some other duties in order to focus more attention to the PHRN. We will likely talk to the four marketing boards about helping to fund this as well.”

Sharif says the PHRN also helps to fulfil the expectations of the new Animal Health Lab and Pathobiology building where his office is situated.

“We’re sitting in a 2 ½-year-old building that was built with $70-75 million of taxpayers’ money – money that came to the university based on the premise that we would be enhancing our diagnostic capacities and animal health research related capacities. I don’t think that there is another facility like this anywhere in North America. We have the critical mass. We have the momentum and the PHRN will help us to maintain that forward impetus.”

In A NUTSHELL

PHRN members have expertise in:

  • diseases of poultry (diagnostics, mechanisms, prevention, treatment, modelling and epidemiology)
  • poultry production, nutrition, welfare and economics
  • public health and environmental impacts of poultry production

Current Members

  • Dr. Agnes Agunos, Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Dr. John Barta, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Gregoy Bedecarrats, Animal and Poultry Science
  • Dr. Andrew Bendall, Molecular and Cellular Biology
  • Dr. Patrick Boerlin, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Martina Brash, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Hugh Cai, Animal Health Laboratory
  • Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Management and Economics
  • Mr. Al Dam, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food
  • Dr. Rob Deardon, Mathematics and Statistics
  • Dr. Joshua Gong, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Dr. Michele Guerin, Population Medicine
  • Dr. Mansel Griffiths, Food Science
  • Dr. Alice Hovorka, Geography
  • Dr. Robert Jacobs, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Gordon Kirby, Biomedical Science
  • Dr. Steven Leeson, Animal and Poultry Science
  • Dr. Emily Martin, Animal Health Laboratory
  • Dr. Eva Nagy, Pathobiology
  • Mr. Tim Nelson, Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
  • Dr. Davor Ojkic, Animal Health Laboratory
  • Dr. John Prescott, Pathobiology
  • Mr. Keith Robbins, PIC Executive Director
  • Dr. Bruce Roberts, Canadian Poultry Research Council
  • Dr. Jan Sargeant, Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses
  • Dr. Shayan Sharif, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Durda Slavic, Animal Health Laboratory
  • Dr. Dale Smith, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Trevor Smith, Animal and Poultry Science
  • Dr. Deborah Stacey, Computer Science
  • Dr. James Squires, Animal and Poultry Science
  • Dr. Patricia Turner, Pathobiology
  • Dr. Bill Van Heyst, School of Engineering
  • Dr. Csaba Varga, OMAFRA
  • Dr. Qi Wang, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada
  • Dr. Keith Warriner, Food Science
  • Dr. Tina Widowski, Animal and Poultry Science

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