Carbohydrate research in animal health supports Canadian economy

Posted: November 22, 2022

GlycoNet scientist Mariela Segura is developing glycomics-based solutions to improve livestock health.

Dr. Mariela Segura
Dr. Mariela Segura is a professor of immunology at the University of Montreal, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Immunoglycobiology of Infectious Diseases and director of the Swine and Poultry Infectious Diseases Research Centre (CRIPA) in the province of Québec.

The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged an era of reprioritization as people, businesses, and government began to consider risks to self-sustainability in a global market. Among other issues, the pandemic highlighted the importance of domestic food production and problems associated with our dependence upon international food sources.

Dr. Mariela Segura is a professor of immunology at the University of Montreal, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Immunoglycobiology of Infectious Diseases and director of the Swine and Poultry Infectious Diseases Research Centre (CRIPA) in the province of Québec. Segura understands the push for Canada to reach greater autonomy in terms of its capacity to produce local food—and her research can help. Her work focuses on controlling infectious diseases in livestock production, to improve animal health and well-being.

As a pan-Canadian research network focused on using the study of glycomics (carbohydrates or sugars in living cells) to address unmet health needs, GlycoNet was a natural fit for Segura. She saw an opportunity to take her research in a new direction to examine how bacterial carbohydrates can manipulate the immune system to evade the body’s defenses, causing clinical disease.

“There is a lot of research done on proteins, for example, but much less is known on how sugars control the relationship between the pathogens and the body of the infected host,” says Segura.

In fact, sugars are the most abundant biomolecules on the planet, and chains of sugars known as glycans have been found to play a role in every major disease. And with the field of glycomics rapidly expanding, Segura recognizes the advantage of being a GlycoNet investigator.

Segura is currently leading a GlycoNet-funded project to develop a sugar-based vaccine to protect swine against the infection caused by Streptococcus suis, a common cause of severe disease and death in piglets. She anticipates that the vaccine will provide an alternative to the use of antimicrobials, helping combat the growing challenge of antimicrobial resistance, while also supporting the Canadian economy.

“Swine production is the second most important bio-food product in Québec; the production satisfies over 30 per cent of the Canadian needs in pork, according to Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec,” shares Segura.

Across the country, more than 7,000 pig farms contribute to the creation of tens of thousands of jobs and a resulting economic activity output of $23.8 billion (Canadian Pork Council). In Québec alone, swine and poultry productions support over 60,000 jobs and help Canada to participate in the international market.

Segura notes that being part of a pan-Canadian network of glycomics researchers also helps her to deliver knowledge directly to swine producers involved in large-scale livestock production, who are critical to the provincial and federal economy.

In addition to the economic benefits, healthy animals are also good for the environment, as they use less land and fewer resources for growing. Furthermore, a social benefit exists as consumers become more educated about the importance of animal welfare and the link to our own health.

“Consumers now are aware of the importance of eating safe food products derived from healthy animals, so glycomics can help answer that kind of social need and social trend in how we eat and how we demand that the food should be produced,” explains Segura.

With GlycoNet’s support, Segura is hopeful her research will generate knowledge that translates into new products, biotech companies, and jobs—helping to grow the Canadian economy.

Segura’s research receives support from GlycoNet, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Swine Innovation Porc and Canada Research Chair programs.

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