SCIENTISTS from the University of Leeds are taking part in a £5.6m project to develop new vaccines to control foot and mouth disease.

The highly contagious virus affects cattle, sheep, goats and pigs and caused severe damage to the UK livestock industries during outbreaks in 2001 and 2007.

The five-year Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded project involves researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Leeds, Edinburgh, Dundee and the Pirbright Institute.

Dr Nicola Stonehouse, from the University of Leeds’ School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, said: “Foot-and-mouth disease is still, especially in this part of the country, a very emotive subject to talk about.

“However, it is an accident waiting to happen because you have so much of this disease elsewhere in the world. Animals are trafficked across borders and viruses can blow across the Channel.”

Prof David Rowlands, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Virology at Leeds, said they wanted to understand the basic biology of the virus so they could use that to underpin a new approach to a vaccine.

Existing vaccines must be kept refrigerated and require multiple boosters, which makes them very difficult to administer effectively in parts of the world where foot and mouth is endemic, such as Africa.

The virus also has different strains, which makes concocting a suitable vaccine cocktail even more challenging.

Prof Martin Ryan, of the University of St Andrews, who is leading the project, said researchers wanted to make a virus that could only grow in specially designed “helper”

cells, meaning that it could not then grow in animals.

He said: “Success would stimulate the routine use of vaccine to control foot and mouth disease virus around the globe. This would reduce the global incidence of foot and mouth disease with enormous economic and social value worldwide.” Prof Terry Jackson, of the Pirbright institute, the only research centre in the UK allowed to handle the virus in its complete form, said one of humanity’s biggest challenges in coming years will be to meet the growing demand for food.

He said: “Animal diseases have a major impact on the productivity of the livestock industry and safeguarding animal welfare will be a major component of maximising food production.”