Can lessons and tools from animal health assist human health?

28 July 2020 

Dunedin, New Zealand: With pressure on world health systems to access live and reliable disease information, are there lessons to learn from animal disease management?  

Can New Zealand’s proud history of farming innovation and recent development of world-leading on-farm technology, provide insight and new tools for public health officials? 

Techion founder and Manging Director Greg Mirams, who has led the development of a world-first online diagnostic platform for the livestock industry, believes lessons from animal health can be applied to support human disease management. While Techion does not work with viruses, its point of care (POC) platform FECPAKG2, is being trialled for human health applications. The use of similar technology and techniques across human and animal health, known as ‘One Health’ has the potential to revolutionise health delivery. From an epidemiological perspective, diseases behave in similar ways in animals and humans, so it makes sense for the tools and approach to be similar.  

Mirams explains; “as the world emerges from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is growing recognition that technology will play a critical role in the future approach to disease management.  Health authorities need to act quickly and be agile – that requires access to live, reliable point of care disease information that can quickly be analysed and linked to experts and health agencies.” He notes that data alone is not the only answer for animal or human health. “Diagnostic tools are only part of the equation, if the data is not aggregated, analysed and interpreted by experts, it remains isolated data. The power of data is its ability to quickly empower experts and decision makers.” 

The son of a farmer, who trained at Lincoln University, Mirams has over 20 years’ experience in developing disease management technology. He is globally networked in the disease management field and is a co-author on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation technical product profile for designing a platform for detecting human parasites.  

“Sheep farming systems provide a unique and valuable insight into disease behaviours that can provide lessons and tools for human health. When you break it down, a typical sheep farm is a monoculture (only sheep living together), they include various ages groups, they are densely populated and genetically similar. As a result, at times, disease management can be highly challenging. And if the farmer gets it wrong, animal welfare and commercial implications are significant. Sheep health and performance is constantly impacted by changing weather, feed and management conditions which can periodically create immunity stress on animals, making them highly susceptible to disease. As a result, sheep farmers with their veterinarians and advisors, have become highly tuned and generally successful in managing a range of sheep diseases.”  

Mirams continued saying sheep farmers also understand the value and role of quarantine and isolation practices on farms to prevent the importation and management of diseases such as; foot rot, salmonella and drench resistance - to name a few.  For the past 40 years, farmers have relied heavily on preventative drug treatment programmes to keep the commercial impact of many diseases at bay. However, widespread drug resistance, combined with social and consumer pressures are now driving farmers to innovate and implement new disease management practices.  

Core to this innovation is access to live on farm data linked to technical support so farmers know if disease is present, which animals are impacted, what may have caused the problem and what drugs will work to deal with it. Armed with timely accurate data, farm managers gain a deeper understanding of disease behaviours within their operation and how they can reduce the impact on their animals.  

As an online technology, Techion’s unique digital platform aggregates and analyses disease related data by locality, region or country. This enables the collation and geo-mapping of disease outbreaks and big data analysis of conditions which trigger outbreaks. This provides the veterinary, scientific and other industry stakeholders with valuable data to support timely alerts and information to help farmers stay in front of the disease curve.  

So, how much of this approach and associated technologies could be transitioned and used as a ‘One Health’ technology to assist in human disease management? This is currently being explored in developing countries with researchers deploying Techion’s FECPAKG2 technology to explore this.   

Take the example of NTD's (Neglected Tropical Diseases) which are prevalent in most developing countries around the world. NTD’s negatively impact human health and they also compromise immunity, making populations more vulnerable to other diseases and viruses. The challenge for health officials operating in developing countries are many. Current NTD diagnostics are often basic, they are challenging to conduct in remote regions because they require technicians, methodologies can be inconstant and data reporting is often sporadic and/or poorly collated.   

Techion's platform is designed to be deployed, supported and serviced in the field. It operates remotely offline or online, is connected to a cloud internet platform, uses artificial intelligence for image analysis and machine-learned decision support. The platform provides health decision makers with a live database that can be geo-mapped and connected to relevant experts, decision makers and stakeholders.  

Work developing Techion’s platform for use in the human NTD area is underway through its collaboration with the Swiss Tropical Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) and other institutions with an initial focus on human parasitic helminths (parasites).  

Other work to validate the opportunity and broaden the platform’s application is underway in collaboration with Cornell University in the United States and Ghent University in Belgium.  

The Swiss Tropical Public Health Institute’s Associate Prof. Dr. Jennifer Keiser says simple, fast and accurate diagnostic tools are critical to evaluate drug efficacy and potential resistance of soil-transmitted helminth infections. Therefore her team is working with Techion’s platform to explore and validate its potential.  

Prof. Dr. Jakob Zinsstag-Klopfenstein also from Swiss TPH, recently spent three months in New Zealand promoting and supporting the One Health approach. During his time, he worked with Techion on the FECPAKG2 platform, specifically aiding design and technical input on how the platform could be used across a range of disease testing applications. He states: “In remote settings like those of mobile pastoralists in Chad (Central Africa) the combination of point of care diagnostic (POC) systems with digital technologies and mobile communication have very large potential for animal and human health.” With the Techion team, he has identified more than thirty different diseases that could be diagnosed through systems like FECPAKG2, which would accelerate their control and provide access to care for people who are left out by health systems.  

Techion has worked closely with the support of Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand’s innovation agency, to develop its animal diagnostic platform. Callaghan’s Agritech Group Manager, Simon Yarrow, commented, “New Zealand is a global leader in Agritech with increasingly sophisticated technology. It’s exciting to see Techion’s technology being expanded to address human health and disease management in developing countries.”  

Greg concluded by saying, by drawing upon the similarities in animal and human disease management or ‘One Health’, we can eliminate development replication and speed up the delivery of a new holistic approach to disease management to benefit human and animal health professionals working on the front line.