Professor Roberto La Ragione, Professor of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology
Professor Roberto La Ragione is Professor of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology, Deputy Head of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Head of the Department of Pathology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Surrey. He has a keen interest in combatting infectious diseases that spread both between animals and from animals to humans. Here, Roberto talks to us through the broad range of research projects he’s involved in – from innovative vaccines to apps for rapidly reporting infections.
So, tell us a little bit about how you ended up in your current role…
Well, my career started when I chose to study zoology back in 1992. After that I went to study at the Royal Veterinary College and obtained a Masters in Veterinary Microbiology, which led to a position within a government laboratory (VLA), working for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). I was lucky that this position included a PhD scholarship – in collaboration with the University of London – which focused on understanding how E. coli causes infections in poultry. With this knowledge, I began creating vaccines for poultry. Defra provided me with a fantastic platform to develop my scientific career as a veterinary researcher – and the vaccine studies I undertook after my PhD taught me how to work with industry, showing me the huge contribution vaccination could make to animal and human health and welfare.
After completing my PhD, I took a post-doctoral research position at Royal Holloway, University of London, working in collaboration with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Defra as a senior veterinary scientist, and then as working group leader for pathogenesis and control of bacterial pathogens. This allowed me to further develop my interest in infectious diseases and pathology – how they occur, how they spread and how we control them – which is what my current portfolio of research focuses on. Whist still employed at Defra, in 2009 I started to work at the University of Surrey to develop a Veterinary Biosciences Degree and an MSc in Veterinary Microbiology. I then moved to the university full time to concentrate on the development of the School of Veterinary Medicine and my research group. I obtained Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists in 2010.
Ultimately, I was able to transfer from a government laboratory into a university environment because I had a real passion for my subject and passing on that knowledge to others. The diversity of expertise within my university is fascinating. I was also really interested in working within a multi-disciplinary environment, with scientists, clinicians, academics and everyone in between.
Talk us through a ‘typical’ working day at the university.
It’s very varied! Some people who work in research do just that and nothing else: I’m lucky enough to be involved in the strategic development of the School of Veterinary Medicine, teaching, research and managing staff, too.
For instance, today I’ve done some project work for an hour researching the transmission of antimicrobial resistance between animals and humans, then we’ve got our Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons accreditation meeting for an hour. Later I’m off to teach veterinary students about the bacteria that causes urinary tract infections, then a research meeting, then more teaching!
Day to day, I’m mostly managing academics and research scientists. As a Head of Department, in addition, I have 13 post docs and seven PhD students in my research group. I meet with my post-docs and students on a regular basis and review their work and plan future studies and ultimately publications, This of course means I do less lab work nowadays, but I still feel very close to the science of the projects I’m working on and I have a great team working with me!
Alongside my 'day job', I'm current Chair of the Royal College of Pathologists' Veterinary Pathology Committee and Chair of the Humanimal Trust.
What kinds of research projects are you currently working on?
My current research is focused in three key areas – vaccines, antimicrobial resistance and diseases which can transferred between animals and humans, otherwise known as zoonoses.
With regards to vaccination, I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in the development of the first ever GMO E. coli vaccine for commercial poultry to be launched in the UK and Europe. E. coli is one of the most important infectious diseases affecting commercial poultry today – a very serious, systemic respiratory disease.
The vaccination itself was a real challenge to develop. How do you produce a vaccine that can be easily administered to 1.5 million chickens in a farm? You can’t inject each one by one, it has to be something different. We settled on a spray which could be administered to chickens and thus provide immune stimulation through the mucosal surfaces lining the nose, mouth, intestine and respiratory tract. This method still provides immunity to those birds, but skips the logistical difficulties of an injection. Our vaccine is now used extensively in laying hens, reducing illness, morbidity and the need for antibiotics.
And you’ve also been working on antimicrobial resistance too…
Yes – in fact much of my work has concerned antimicrobial resistance or AMR. AMR is what happens when microorganisms, like bacteria, viruses and some parasites, develop a defence against antimicrobials, such as antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials, stopping them from working. My research is all about preventing this and understanding how this resistance can transmit from one bacteria to another within an animal or the environment. I’m also interested in how environmental factors on farms and in veterinary practices might drive AMR – for example, how pasture is treated or how buildings are designed.
In this area, I’m currently involved with a project with Glasgow School of Art, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Here, we’re modelling how bacteria transfers between animals and people within veterinary practices. The aim of this is to set up an app that allows vets and nurses to be trained about infection control by understanding the risks in a particular environment.
Finally, in another project, I’m working on ‘pen side’ rapid diagnostics – getting speedy diagnoses of diseases without having to send samples to a lab and wait for days for a result.
This project is a collaboration with the the Philippines and brings together veterinary microbiologists, clinicians, computer scientists and engineers to create an app where vets can diagnose diseases on site and share their results online. Tests are swab-based – for example, if you have an animal displaying symptoms of a particular disease, you take a swab and a DNA test is completed in minutes. If we can tell what strain of the disease we’re dealing with, based on its molecular fingerprint, we know what antibiotics will be effective – and which won’t work at all.
What kinds of people do you think thrive in a research role?
Research work like this is very multifaceted, so flexibility is key. You also have to be a great communicator and have a desire to convey the importance of your area of science to others – you’ll often be working in multidisciplinary teams with very diverse representation, and will need to prepare your research for key public and political stakeholders.
Research work offers a great base from which to branch out into other fields like writing and teaching, too. Teaching especially excites me: I had a number of hugely inspirational mentors when I was undertaking my PhD and post-doc training and I like the idea that one or two of my students might be encouraged to study further because of my support. We really want to develop the next generation of veterinary microbiologists, so if students are keen to hear more... we’d love them to reach out and make contact with their local university or research institute.