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New Insights into PRRS Virus Paves Way for Vaccines

By Jean-Paul MacDonald

The collaboration between researchers at the University of Manitoba and the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands has yielded crucial insights into the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV). PRRSV is a pathogen that causes severe illness in pigs, resulting in substantial economic losses for pork producers globally.

“This disease in pigs is important worldwide and is economically fairly significant,” says Marjolein Kikkert, Associate Professor of Virology at Leiden University Medical Centre. “The aim of the project was to improve vaccines for this disease, and it turned out that it was very difficult.” It is estimated that PRRS costs the Canadian pork industry $130M annually.

Kikkert and collaborator Brian Mark, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Manitoba, investigated the targeting of a type of protein known as a protease. PRRSV uses these proteins to suppress a host’s immune system, causing severe illness. By modifying the structure, researchers can design altered viruses upon which to base new vaccines.

With the support of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Mark and Kikkert were able to visualize the unique structure of the PRRSV protease. The insights gained from their study are valuable for developing new vaccines against PRRSV and also contribute to the development of vaccines against emerging human viruses.

The team has conducted similar research on coronaviruses — which also utilize proteases to suppress human and animal immune systems — and has successfully designed new vaccines.

“The trick and hypothesis we had for improving the PRRSV vaccine didn't quite work,” says Kikkert. “However, we did learn a lot about how these viruses work. And it may certainly be a basis for further work into possibilities for improving vaccines against these viruses and coronaviruses.”

The team’s findings also open new avenues for understanding how viruses like PRRSV use proteins to replicate, making this a significant academic discovery.

“The Canadian Light Source provided the technology we needed to determine the structures of these proteases, and this knowledge has provided tremendous insight into the biochemistry of these viruses, which is the cornerstone of modern vaccine development,” says Mark.

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