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Small Spaces, Big Impacts: Isolator Gift Helps Grow Research Program

Woman in protective paper coveralls reaches into an isolator
Katherine Cupo, a graduate student in Beckstead's lab, adds food to an isolator unit.

In 2018, Robert Beckstead’s lab in the Prestage Department of Poultry Science (PDPS) was able to test 8 possible treatments for turkey and chicken diseases. In 2019, the lab has the potential to test close to 350. That’s 45 times as many tests!

How can one lab do so much more work in the same amount of time? By going small – and for Beckstead’s work, going small means isolators: small enclosures that let researchers separate animals and control environments.

More, Faster…Smaller?

There are a lot of times when more (and faster) is better: internet connections, NASCAR races and pie-eating contests, for example. But when it comes to research, is speed important? Yes, if you’re looking to improve animal welfare, produce better data and reduce costs. And it might seem backwards, but in this case, smaller is the fastest route to getting faster.

An isolator unit viewed from an angle
An isolator in the lab.

Thanks in part to a gift of 10 isolator units from the National Turkey Federation (NTF)*, Beckstead’s lab now has 30 units that will get researchers closer to knowing how to prevent – and potentially treat – diseases that strike commercial turkey and chicken flocks. The donation, valued at over $150,000, reflects the group’s 75 years of advocating for turkey farmers and processors and fostering communication between the public and turkey producers.

New isolator units will facilitate ongoing research and open opportunities for the Animal Health Products Development Task Force of the NTF to collaborate with PDPS on new research projects.

Protozoa Problems in Poultry

Turkeys and chickens, like all animals, get sick. When that happens, researchers work to figure out what’s making them sick and how to treat them. In Beckstead’s lab, the focus is on protozoan (single-celled) parasites that cause diseases in poultry. Some of the biggest problems come from Histomonas meleagridis, which causes blackhead disease. A turkey with blackhead disease stops growing and eventually dies. Without effective prevention, entire flocks will be lost. Chickens are also infected with histomonas, but recover from the disease. While there’s no danger to humans, chickens, especially when raised outdoors, help spread the disease to turkeys, where the outcomes are dire.

Other protozoa the Beckstead lab looks at include cochlosoma, Tetratrichomonas gallinarum and coccidia. Together, the problems these protozoa cause hurt animals and cost poultry producers billions of dollars.

To keep birds healthy, companies and organizations look for the latest research from poultry specialists. That’s where isolators in the lab are poised to make a big difference. Now, with the ability to isolate birds, Beckstead and his lab can get answers where they’re needed faster than ever before.

New Equipment, New Methods

Before getting isolators in his lab, Beckstead’s trials that tested possible parasite cures needed a lot of space and a lot of birds and that cost a lot of money. There weren’t always good ways to manage all of a study’s variables without isolators. Very small-scale (in vitro) research and large-scale (1000s of birds) trials were possible but “the intermediate step was missing,” Beckstead says. With the new equipment, studies of different sizes are possible.

The intermediate step was missing.

Not only will the isolators mean more studies, they’ll mean better studies with clearer results. The ability to precisely manage food, water, light, dosing and other potential variables means that when researchers finish a trial, their data will be robust and conclusions will be easier to show.

Every time an animal is used in research, the researcher has to have IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) approval for the study. IACUC aims to reduce animal suffering and the number of animals needed in a study. Researchers consider the minimum number of animals they need to get usable data. Using isolators, Beckstead’s lab can run meaningful trials with usable data with 1/10 of the animals it used to take without isolators. Instead of 80 birds, they can use 8. That means fewer birds with disease and thus, less animal suffering.

When getting started, the smaller number of birds, the better. Once an initial test in an isolator unit shows promise, a larger study can be planned to see if preliminary findings continue in larger groups. That way, only products with initially useful results will be tested on larger flocks of birds. Since it only takes a couple of birds to know if something doesn’t work, the isolators help reduce costs by keeping researchers focused on what does seem to work. The result? Focused research, faster.

Making Research More Efficient

Finally, the NTF gift saves time and money by boosting efficiency. Isolator trials can be done in one place. With no need to go to and from the research farm (the only place to put large bird flocks), lab members can spend more time researching and less time traveling. All that time adds up.

That saved time goes to good use. Isolators let the same lab work on multiple trials at the same time. One isolator can be testing a possible treatment for histomonas while another can test a possible prevention method for cochlosoma. More studies mean more work, but more efficient work makes it all possible.

It can be easy to assume that bigger is always better. In the case of impact, that’s often true. Sometimes, that impact comes from doing more, faster, but smaller. When it comes to the NTF’s support of Robert Beckstead’s research lab, the impact of 10 small, rectangular units is already being felt.

*10 donors gifted isolators to Robert Beckstead’s lab through the National Turkey Foundation (NTF): North Carolina Poultry Federation, Devenish, Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition, EW Nutrition, Huvepharma, Virginia Poultry Federation, Elanco, Zoetis, Cargill and Provimi.