Campylobacter is the second most common cause of human foodborne diarrheal illness in the U.S., causing an estimated 1.3 million cases annually and resulting in health care costs of somewhere between $800 million to $5.6 billion per year. The handling and consumption of poultry is considered to be the most significant risk factor in transmission of the bacteria to humans. To date, there is no vaccine available to industry to reduce the numbers of Campylobacter in poultry and intervention strategies remain insufficient. The laboratory of Bibiana Law, previously under the late Lynn Joens, is one of the leading research programs worldwide in the development of a vaccine to reduce the Campylobacter bacteria in chickens.
The research on Campylobacter is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Law is working with UA's Office of Technology Transfer and industry to commercialize the vaccine. Additionally, the lab maintains close ties to CamVac, a collaborative organization of researchers seeking a global solution to the issue of Campylobacter in poultry. Other research includes the assessment of biofilms (groups of microorganisms adhering to a surface) in irrigation infrastructure in Yuma for the presence of Salmonella as a risk factor for contamination in fresh produce.
Law's interest in food safety began at McGill University in Montreal where she obtained her bachelor's degree in dietetics in 1996. As a dietitian working at Montreal Children's Hospital and the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, she learned how easily food could be contaminated with pathogens—and the resultant detrimental impact on patients.
Law started researching Campylobacter in 2002 when as a doctoral student she joined the laboratory of Lynn Joens, professor of veterinary science and microbiology. Today she is an associate research professor of veterinary science and microbiology. Though Joens died in 2012 and is greatly missed by his research team, colleagues and students, his passion for food safety and his work are being carried on. Law's expertise in Campylobacter pathogenesis has allowed her to assume the lead role in continued development of the vaccine.
The United States has the largest broiler chicken industry in the world, producing approximately 8.41 billion broiler chickens in 2012. Chicken consumption surpasses both beef and pork consumption. In 2011, the USDA implemented new performance standards for Campylobacter on chicken carcasses at processing establishments. These standards allow no more than eight positive Campylobacter samples in a 51-sample set.
"These strict standards can be difficult to meet with current intervention strategies," said Law, but "an effective vaccine can be produced for commercial scale cost-effectively within a few years."
Risk assessment indicates that a 99% reduction of the Campylobacter load on chickens, such as that provided by the vaccine, would reduce the incidence of campylobacteriosis associated with chicken meals by a factor of 30 (e.g., reduced incidence of 300 to 10 per 100,000 population). Successful vaccination of chickens would lead to compliance with the new USDA performance standards for Campylobacter in chickens by improving the safety of poultry, thereby resulting in significantly reducing the number of human illnesses.