Finding novel solutions to animal problems, great and small

Lab solving problems – just for animals

At a glance

  • La Trobe’s Agricultural BioSolutions Laboratory has state-of-the-art facilities to enable cutting edge, collaborative research
  • Led by Professor Travis Beddoe, problems in a range of animals, from pigs to pigeons, have been tackled in the lab, resulting in new partnerships, vaccines and diagnostic approaches
  • Work extends from the lab into the field, including on farms, to test solutions in the real world
  • The lab’s latest vaccine, to protect pigs from Japanese encephalitis, is expected to immunise 500,000 pigs in its first season.

Case study

What do crocodiles, honeybees, pigs, racing pigeons and abalone all have in common?

They’ve all been the focus of the Agricultural BioSolutions Laboratory’s hunt for novel answers to problems in the animal and livestock industries.

La Trobe University’s Professor Travis Beddoe leads the lab’s bench-to-barn research program, collaborating with commercial partners in diagnostics, molecular pathogenesis, vaccine development and immunotherapies to develop products with real-world impact.

It’s work that happens inside the lab as well as in the field - even among hundreds of crocodiles.

For the vaccine trial in the Northern Territory … you don’t set up 20 baby crocodiles and inject them in lab conditions. We had 1600 animals split into groups on a real working farm. It complicates the vaccine story, but it's one of the things you learn to work with.

Professor Travis Beddoe
Head of Department, Animal, Plant & Soil Sciences,
La Trobe University

Prof Beddoe’s grandfathers were fitters and turners, and he grew up a tinkerer, drawn to the challenge of solving complex problems. His initial academic interest was plant biochemistry, and his PhD and post-graduate studies explored important fundamental science problems in lab settings.

But when a research project involving sheep sparked an interest in agricultural livestock, he joined La Trobe in 2013 to focus on applied research with commercial potential.

“The biggest change for me was having more contact with industry, which doesn't care about the fundamentals too much,” he says. “They’ve got a problem, and they want to know if we can help solve it.”

In 2019, the lab solved a problem for racing pigeon owners Australia-wide, producing a vaccine to combat a deadly virus first identified by Agriculture Victoria research. With top breeding pairs valued upwards of $20,000, the Australian National Racing Pigeon Board and Tréidlia Biovet partnered with Prof Beddoe’s team to create a vaccine that is still being used - and generating royalties.

The learning curve was steep: Prof Beddoe was new to regulatory frameworks, commercial relationships, scaling up discoveries while keeping them cost-effective and working with the unpredictable environment outside the lab.

The pigeon project informed another vaccine: to protect pigs from mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis. Developed in partnership with Apiam Animal Health and using the lab’s own streamlined vaccine-production platform, it’s expected to immunise 500,000 animals in its first season.

Immunising abalone, however, brings next-level challenges as invertebrates have completely different immune systems from mammals. La Trobe’s Karla Helbig was investigating a vaccine to protect against a herpes virus when an outbreak struck the wild population.

With abalone farming worth approximately $85 million a year in Victoria, industry and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation responded, investing in a three-year study to safeguard stock.

Genuine collaboration is key to driving successful commercialisation partnerships, says Prof Beddoe.

“Both parties have to know what we're trying to achieve together and be supportive of each other,” he says. “When everything works on paper, that's fantastic, I'd have 20 million vaccines on paper. But when you start doing experiments, things can change.”

Learn more about La Trobe’s Agricultural BioSolutions Laboratory.