Improvement of vaccine and growth strategies in chickens depends on proper monitoring of the avian immune system. In the past years, we have developed assays to measure the innate (natural killer cells, dendritic cells) and adaptive immune response (antigen specific T cells and antigen secreting B cells). With these state-of-the art tools we are now able to study immune responses in blood and spleen, but also in mucosal organs such as lung and gut. We investigate immune responses during viral infections such as avian influenza, infectious bronchitis and Marek’s Disease, as well as the development of immune responses in chicken embryos and young chickens upon hatch.
In addition to monitoring the function and frequency of immune cells, we also try to change the function of these cells. For example, we target natural killer cells via adjuvants or recombinant viruses. In this way we aim to enhance the function of the cells in order to strengthen the first line of defense against pathogens. This modulation of cells of the innate immune system may be an effective way to induce vaccine-mediated protection in young chickens, in which the adaptive immune system is not fully developed yet. Thus, studying anti-viral immune responses of for example natural killer cells may be the first step in developing novel vaccine strategies that target the innate, rather than the adaptive immune system.
Influencing chicken health
Furthermore, we use the tools we have developed to find out how the innate immune system develops in chicken embryos and young chickens upon hatch. Where do the different populations of innate immune cells develop and how do they travel through the body? Can we influence this, for example by in-ovo injection or through feed additives? Does this influence the health of the chickens and their resistance to pathogens? These are questions we are currently working on.