Plum Island Animal Disease Center Research Participation Program
Plum Island Animal Disease Center Research Participation Program

Veterinarian aids immunization efforts in the control of foot-and-mouth disease

When Dr. Elizabeth Ramirez-Medina, a veterinarian in México City, moved to Connecticut with her husband, also a veterinarian, who was joining the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) Research Participation Program, she never expected she would join the program as well.

As her husband, Dr. Lauro Velazquez, was about to begin his research experience at PIADC, Ramirez-Medina was asked by ARS scientists Marvin Grubman (now retired) and Teresa de los Santos, her soon-to-be mentor, to also apply for the program. She quickly responded to the request and in a short time found herself a part of something she had never imagined. “To me, the program seemed like an amazing opportunity, one that I’ve never expected,” Ramirez-Medina said.

The PIADC Research Participation Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. The program is designed to provide a flow of qualified researchers to PIADC for the aim of developing advanced technologies and countermeasures against foreign animal diseases.

While in Mexico, Ramirez-Medina diagnosed viral diseases in animals including classical swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza, equine encephalitis and Newcastle disease. Now, as a part of the Foreign Animal Disease Research Unit at PIADC and with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service and the U. S Department of Homeland Security, she researches how foot-and-mouth disease, or FMD, develops and the ways in which it can be controlled.

FMD is a severe, highly contagious viral disease that causes illness in cows, pigs, sheep, goats, deer and other animals with divided hooves. There are seven known serotypes and more than 60 subtypes of the FMD virus, and immunity to one does not guarantee protection against another serotype or subtype. Though the disease is not currently present in the U.S., it is widespread in other countries and is considered the top threat to American agriculture and other related industries. For this reason, in the case of an FMD outbreak, vaccine development is very important.

At PIADC, Ramirez-Medina’s research focuses on ways to improve vaccination methods for the novel Ad5-FMD vaccine. Developed by Grubman, the former lead scientist on the program, the Ad5-FMD vaccine is the first U.S approved vaccine that does not use a live FMD virus.

The process to test the vaccination requires a strict adherence to schedule in which everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and when, according to Ramirez-Medina. “Each time we start our experiment, everyone must spring into action,” she said. “We are all busy with no time to spare. I go into the animal rooms, vaccinate the animals and then wait for specific times to come back, collect samples and test them again.”

Ramirez-Medina collects blood and nasal samples from the animals daily for seven days, and then once at 14 days and at 21 days. These samples are taken back to the lab and separated into three parts: serum, plasma and peripheral blood mononucleated cells or PBMCs. The PBMCs are used to test cellular immunity possibly induced by the vaccine. This helps to understand whether the method of vaccination has been effective for promoting the body’s immunity and thereby combating FMD.     

One of the biggest challenges with these experiments is that the animals are grouped according to different treatments and this requires taking a shower each time the room is changed to ensure that Ramirez-Medina’s hands and the rest of her body are completely clean of the virus, and she will not inadvertently pass the FMD virus from one room to the other. “Sometimes I have to shower six times a day, and at the same time, I have to be watchful of the ferry schedule – you don’t want to miss it, or else you’ll be stuck on the island until the next ferry comes” said Ramirez-Medina.

But with all of this, Ramirez-Medina says the appointment at PIADC has been an invaluable learning experience. “I have learned about the impact and importance of obtaining effective vaccines to fully protect animals against FMD,” she said. “I’ve also learned how to prepare protocols for animal experiments and to perform many different lab techniques.”

And to fellow veterinarians and researchers who may be considering applying to the program, she advises that they should undoubtedly go for it. She believes that PIADC is a great place to conduct research, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to be a part of an internationally recognized institution. In the future, Ramirez-Medina would like to also earn a doctoral degree in pathology, virology or immunology and continue to pursue animal disease research.

"Working at PIADC has given my husband and I not only the opportunity to research animal diseases, but also make new friends, enjoy bicycle rides by the Long Island sound, contemplate beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and the ride to the center in a boat," she said. "We're happy here and can't wait to see what our next adventure will be."©

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Elizabeth Ramirez-Medina