Sleuth on the trail of deadly droves

May 26, 2006


Joe Brownlie is the Sherlock Holmes of animal disease.

"The fun of science is like detective work - trying to find out the truth,"

says the professor of veterinary pathology and infectious diseases at the Royal Veterinary College, London.

Professor Brownlie has spent his career hunting down animal viruses and unearthing vaccines to treat them. He was one of four scientists to advise the Government's Foresight report on potentially threatening infectious diseases.

Professor Brownlie says: "Possibly all new human diseases are of animal origin. As any new and emerging diseases will be from an animal base, it's very important that we link veterinary and human medicine.

"Take Sars or Aids - vets had been looking at those diseases in animals for years and had lots of experience of them. But we are often so busy doing our own thing that we don't see the opportunities to link up, and that's what this programme has done," he says.

Professor Brownlie seems unwilling to criticise anyone, least of all the Government, but he emphasises that the fact that a large amount of work is not linked "really is a problem".

"We don't know where the next disease will come from, but it's likely to be from an animal source. If we're more attuned, we're much more likely to see that," he warns.

Professor Brownlie was one of the voices of reason during the emotionally fraught foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001. He began working on the front line in Cumbria and ended up as a key member of the Government's scientific advisory board - arguing, controversially at the time, against vaccination. Reports since have vindicated his position.

"Retrospectively, and with greater knowledge, we might have done things differently. But at the time, I'm sure it was the right decision," he says.

Now the world is fixated on the dangers posed by avian influenza, but another of Professor Brownlie's specialisms - bovine viral diarrhoea - could be a far more serious threat. "It's arguably the most important single viral disease of cattle," he says.

His research led to the discovery of the pathogenesis of this disease and eventually to a vaccine for it. "It's quite nice for an academic to go from the basic findings right through to developing a prototype vaccine and then a commercial vaccine and to get it on the market," he says.

And his work on a marker vaccine should make it possible to distinguish whether a cow has been infected naturally or vaccinated. An inability to make such a distinction was an issue during the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Professor Brownlie's academic career has followed a relatively conventional path. He qualified just before the last big foot-and-mouth epidemic in the 1960s and went into a large animal practice. He then did a PhD in biochemistry in the belief that it would make him a better vet.

"I realised I wanted to go into immunology. It was so exciting - just when our understanding of human and cellular immunology was starting to develop.

I thought if we could apply some of those newer technologies to veterinary disease, it would be a great move forward," he says.

A postdoctoral Royal Society fellowship in Australia meant working with Bede Morris, "an outstanding immunologist and character". It was a life-changing year, and it ignited a passion that drew Professor Brownlie away from day-to-day veterinary work. But he stays close to the field through consultancy work. "I love that bit of it. I work well at the interface between basic science and the clinical, professional side," he says.

Today's students would struggle to follow a career path similar to his.

"With student debt of £20,000 to £30,000 on five-year veterinary courses, doing a three-year PhD programme on a student salary is crippling. We're having to work hard to support these students and motivate them. It's a future challenge," he says.

Professor Brownlie says the the Foresight report is one of the most exciting things he has done, but he is more animated when he talks about the detective work of research - first hunting down new viruses and then discovering ways to destroy them.

"It's incredible what we still don't know. You would think there would be nothing straightforward and simple left for us to understand with foot-and-mouth, but we still don't know how the disease affects pregnant animals, which to me is fundamental."

I graduated from the School of Veterinary Science, Bristol University

My first job was  as a veterinary surgeon in a mixed practice in Dorset and Sussex

My main challenge is to identify the causes of emerging diseases and provide protective vaccines

What I hate the most  is mean-spiritedness and brutality

In ten years time I hope to be musing, writing, drinking, fishing on the River Dart, in Devon, with frequent interruptions from my wife, family, friends and colleagues

My favourite joke is when two scientists agree, one of them has stopped listening.

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