BHEARD Scholar Works to Immunize Plants Against Multiple Viruses
Duncan Gitonga Ithinji, a BHEARD Scholar from Kenya and Washington State University graduate student is working to produce particles that could immunize plants against multiple viruses.
Diseases attributed to viruses like Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV), Goat pox virus (GTPV) and others are a serious threat to Kenya and large parts of Africa. But BHEARD scholar Duncan Ithinji hopes that his research in the potential of Multivalent Virus-like Particle Vaccines will help to immunize animals (ie cattle, sheep and goats) in the region from multiple viruses with a single vaccine.
The Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), develops agricultural scientists and increases agricultural research capacity in Feed the Future partner countries, including Bangladesh. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”
BHEARD gives scholarships to students seeking master’s and doctorate degrees at U.S. and regional universities, and provides funding for agricultural research in their home countries. The program also develops, tests and evaluates new models of small-scale institutional capacity development.
With aid from the BHEARD Program, Ithinji is pursuing his PhD in Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Washington State University (WSU). He's wrapping up his third year and preparing to return to Kenya for the final part of his program. Colleen Taugher, Associated Director with Global Research and Engagement at WSU says that their Global Animal Health team in the Vet School are very pleased to be able to train a scientist that has the capacity to work with the program for years to come. Taugher says that Ithinji is also a great student. "To date, Duncan has maintained an outstanding GPA 3.95. This is an outstanding status compared to other students in this rigorous PhD program," says Taugher.
In his study, Ithinji aims to produce virus-like particles (VLPs) that incorporate immunogenic proteins from two or more viruses. The envisaged outcome is the ability to use the particles to immunize against two or more viruses using a single vaccine. Ithinji therefore targets to produce a VLP based vaccine incorporating RVFV, Peste des petits ruminants virus (PPRV) and GTPV immunogenic proteins. He also aims to enhance the vaccine’s thermotolerance to improve its applicability in the high temperature arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya and beyond, which face vaccine cold-chain infrastructural challenge. The vaccine will be tested in both laboratory animals and natural hosts.
Due to the nature of the threat of these viruses, the success of this vaccine will have far reaching outcomes to the livestock-rearing communities in Kenya and beyond.