Listen: How vaccinating a pig can save a child from epilepsy

Laureate Professor Marshall Lightowlers reveals the path he and his team took to achieve what had seemed like an impossible task: developing a vaccine against a parasite which would greatly reduce epilepsy in developing countries.

The lecture, titled “From dreams to reality – preventing epilepsy in poor, developing countries by vaccination against a cestode parasite,” was the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences’ 2019 DC Blood Oration. You can listen to Professor Lightowlers’ lecture below.

Diseases caused by parasites such as worms, ticks and protozoa have been remarkably difficult to prevent through vaccination – there has never been any vaccine against parasitic disease for use in humans.

But Professor Lightowlers and his team sought to develop a vaccine caused by Taenia solium, a parasite that causes epilepsy in humans and is transmitted by pigs in areas with poor sanitation.

They determined that the best course to prevent infections in humans was to develop a vaccine against the parasite in pigs, as while humans are the main host for T. solium, pigs are the sole host for it in its larval stage.

This parasitic infection causes more than half the epilepsy cases in areas where it is common, including in communities in India, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

Using genetic engineering techniques, the team were successful in developing an effective pig vaccine; this is expected to greatly reduce human infections where it is used.

They are now endeavouring to determine the most effective and sustainable program for use of the vaccine.

With support from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, the vaccine has been developed further and is now available as a registered product with the backing of World Health Organization.

Laureate Professor Marshall Lightowlers (centre)
Laureate Professor Marshall Lightowlers (centre) with Professor Anna Meredith, Head of the Melbourne Veterinary School (left) and Professor John Fazakerley, Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

Professor Lightowlers is Principal Research Fellow with the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia and Professor in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

In 2011 he was appointed by the University of Melbourne Council as Melbourne Laureate Professor.

Professor Lightowlers has served as President of the Australian Society for Parasitology and has been awarded the society’s Bancroft-Mackerras Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the science of parasitology. He has published more than two hundred articles in internationally refereed journals and books.

The lecture was part of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences' Dean's Lecture Series.