Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition assistant professor Dr. Melha Mellata, center, and post-doctoral researchers Angelica Van Goor and Zach Stromberg are looking into potential vaccines that can be used to prevent and treat diseases caused by E.coli bacteria. Photo by Whitney Sager.

Iowa State researchers look into vaccines that can prevent, treat diseases caused by E.coli in humans, poultry

Dr. Melha Mellata and her team of researchers in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University previously discovered a link between foodborne E.coli and extra-intestinal infections in humans. Now, they’re taking their research a step further by looking into potential vaccines that can be used to prevent and treat the diseases caused by the E.coli bacteria.

The outcomes of Mellata’s latest research have been published in two recently-released papers: “Evaluation of Recombinant Attenuated Salmonella Vaccine Strains for Broad Protection Against Extraintestinal Pathogenic Escherichia coli” in Frontiers in Immunology, and “A recombinant multi-antigen vaccine with broad protection potential against avian pathogenic Escherichia coli,” in PLOS One.

In the first paper, Mellata and her researchers sought out to create a single Salmonella-based vaccine that provides broad protection in humans against Salmonella and E.coli. An issue they wanted to overcome by creating this vaccine is that strains of E.coli are very diverse and have become resistant to antibiotics, making it hard to treat. When people are exposed to harmful strains of E.coli, they can become ill with meningitis, sepsis or urinary tract infections. These diseases can be particularly harmful to immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, newborns, and the elderly.

The second paper details the researchers’ efforts to create a protein-based vaccine for chickens that could protect the birds from contracting E. coli infections. Creating a vaccine is essential as a way to not only prevent bird loss due to the disease but increase productivity to feed the world’s ever-growing population.

“We need to find an alternative to antibiotic resistance and vaccines that could protect against a wide range of strains of bacteria, and our studies show promising results in achieving this goal,” Mellata said.

During their research, they first developed the vaccines, then tested the vaccines’ ability to activate the immune system of vaccinated animals. They also looked at the vaccines’ ability to kill the strains of bacteria. The vaccine for humans will benefit the entire population, but it would be especially beneficial to pregnant women and the elderly due to the higher risk the diseases pose to them.

Mellata’s post-doctoral researchers Zach Stromberg and Angelica Van Goor were involved in the vaccine studies and took part in the research process. This opportunity gave both Stromberg and Van Goor a new research experience they didn’t have before.

“I am very thankful to be involved in both studies and in developing unique approaches to solve problems in agriculture and human health,” Stromberg said.

“My previous work was on genetic of chickens and my involvement in developing a vaccine that can be used in the commercial industry helped me understand the importance of vaccination to improve agriculture,” Van Goor added.

The overall goal of these two research projects was to increase the health of food-producing animals and humans. The researchers are now continuing their work on vaccines by including the most modern technology to hopefully one day see them approved and made available to the public and poultry farms.