image of a baby chicken

CSIRO biotechnology benefits global poultry industry

CSIRO biotechnology was a key component of the world's first one-dose hatchery vaccine against Infectious Bursal Disease (IBD), a major global disease affecting chickens.

  • 7 September 2007 | Updated 17 August 2012

The issue

Infectious Bursal Disease (IBD), also known as Gumboro, is one of the most economically important diseases in the intensive poultry industry. It is a major potential cause of mortality and immunosuppression that can lead to secondary disease.

IBD is caused by a virus. Its severity varies according to the viral strain. Mild strains generally do not result in poultry deaths, but the very virulent strains can cause mortalities of 20 to 70 per cent in infected flocks.

IBD virus affects the bursa – a primary lymphoid organ of the chicken important in producing immune cells such as antibodies.

CSIRO's VP2 technology was a key component of the first one-dose poultry hatchery vaccine against Infectious Bursal Disease.

Milder strains of IBD virus are present in Australia. However, the highly deadly, or 'very virulent', strains occur in all poultry-producing countries except:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand 
  • United States
  • Canada.

Vaccination for IBD is essential in all parts of the world. There are many weakened live vaccines available for use, but their effectiveness in protecting poultry will depend on the virus strain involved.

What CSIRO did

In the mid 1980s, a multidisciplinary CSIRO team began work on developing a vaccine against IBD. The researchers described the size and genetic makeup of the virus and sequenced the viral genome.

They determined the mechanism the virus employs to yield the mature viral proteins VP2, VP3 and VP4. The researchers provided the groundwork for studies on other viruses in the Birnaviridae family.

The team identified that viral protein VP2 was needed to induce immunity in vaccinated birds and mapped its antibody binding mechanism. They went on to develop recombinant expression systems to produce this viral protein (antigen) in a highly immunogenic form.

They optimised large-scale fermentation protocols and downstream processing procedures to enable the industrial scale-up of this recombinant DNA-based vaccine. They also assisted the commercial partner at the time – Arthur Webster Pty Ltd – in the implementation of these new processes.

The collaborative team covered the whole spectrum of vaccine research. Scientists with  molecular biology and protein chemistry expertise worked with animal health researchers who provided virology and immunology expertise. Others in the team scaled-up the fermentation process for vaccine manufacture.

The outcomes

The prototype IBD vaccine was the world's first recombinant subunit vaccine developed for veterinary purposes. Subunit vaccines contain purified antigens rather than the whole virus.

CSIRO’s VP2 antigen technology was licensed to the international pharmaceutical company Merial Limited in 1997.

The technology was a key component of the first one-dose poultry hatchery vaccine against IBD and Marek's disease – Vaxxitek™ HVT+IBD. The vaccine – released to the market in 2006 – is specifically designed to protect against classic, variant or very virulent strains of IBD.

The vaccine is unique in that it:

  • provides effective control and improved performance against very virulent IBD
  • stimulates protective immunity without replicating in the bursa
  • does not cause immune suppression or damage to the bursa of the chicken.

The DNA vectors used for protein production in the yeast fermentation systems were licensed to AMRAD Corporation Limited (now part of CSL Limited). This arrangement has led to a 500 per cent increase in the sales of these vectors.

In 1993, the IBD vaccine research team received the 9th Dr Bart Rispens Memorial Award. The award consisted of a medal, certificate and a cheque for the article A recombinant subunit vaccine that protects progeny chickens from infectious bursal disease, which was judged the best research paper published in the journal Avian Pathology during the period 1991 to 1992.

Each year, CSIRO awards Research Achievement Medals to recognise exceptional research of CSIRO scientists or teams.  In 1997, the fourteen-strong IBD vaccine research team – led by Dr Ahmed Azad, Dr Colin Ward and Dr Kevin Fahey – was awarded the CSIRO Chairman's Medal.

The intellectual property arising from this research has been documented in a number of publications and patents. Milestone payments and royalty streams obtained as a result of this research achievement are being re-invested in CSIRO science.

The team

The multidisciplinary research team included:

  • Dr Ahmed Azad
  • Dr Peter Hudson
  • Dr Tony Chapman
  • Dr Kevin Fahey
  • Dr Hans Heine
  • Dr Ian Macreadie
  • Dr Mittur Jagadish
  • Dr Neil McKern
  • Dr Ian O’Donnell
  • Dr John Skicko
  • Dr Paul Vaughan
  • Dr Colin Ward
  • Mr Andrew Wolfe.

Find out more about CSIRO Awards.

  • Vaxxitek™ is a registered trademark of Merial Limited.
  • Fahey KJ, Chapman AJ, Macreadie IG, Vaughan PR, McKern NM, Skicko JI, Azad AA. 1991. A recombinant infectious bursal disease subunit vaccine protects progeny chickens from infection. Avian Pathology. 20: 447-460.