Technology reduces diagnosis of BRD from four + days to about 30 minutes

The number one struggle Aaron Ault faces on his farm is managing bovine respiratory disease (BRD). During a bad BRD outbreak, the Indiana farmer may spend weeks pulling two to three dozen sick calves per day from his herd for treatment. 

One of the most prevalent and costly illnesses in the beef and dairy industries, BRD accounts for about half of all feedlot deaths in North America and costs producers as much as $900 million a year. 

“I believe it’s the biggest problem in the beef industry,” says Ault, who farms 3,200 acres of corn and soybeans and manages 3,000 head of cattle.

While a rapid diagnosis could not only improve the well-being of animals and save producers significant money, results from current tests take four or more days.

“Bovine respiratory disease can be triggered by a number of bacteria and viruses, making treatment decisions difficult,” says Mohit Verma, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, Purdue University. “By the time a test comes back in four or five days, the disease may have killed the calf or spread to many others in the feedlot.”

Purdue University researchers, led by Verma, are developing technology to reduce diagnosis time to about 30 minutes. The work is being funded by a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Inter-Disciplinary Engagement in Animal Systems (IDEAS) grant.

“Over the next three years, we will develop a test that addresses the bacterial side and have a prototype to use in the field,” he says.

Currently, veterinarians treat BRD with antibiotics that are effective against the most common bacteria that causes the disease, according to Jennifer Koziol, a clinical assistant professor in Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a co-investigator on the project. However, she says it’s possible the bacteria could be resistant to certain antibiotics, which makes the treatment ineffective. Having a rapid, accurate test not only is good for the animals, it’s good for antibiotic stewardship.

“When we have BRD going through multiple animals in the herd, we need to know exactly what bacteria we are up against and exactly which antibiotics will be useful quicker than four to five days, so we can make good choices about the antibiotics we use the first time,” she says. 

The biosensor technology being developed can help achieve that. 

“There’s also an opportunity to collect much better data about the health of our cattle through machine learning, looking at the types and amounts of bacteria normally present in a calf’s respiratory system and using that information to predict potential issues down the road,” says Ault, who is also a senior research engineer in Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and will be working with the team on engineering components of the technology.

Beyond BRD, the technology could also be the base for detecting other animal and human illnesses. Before receiving the USDA-NIFA IDEAS grant, Verma had started adapting the platform to identify the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“To accurately diagnose a BRD infection, our sensors will need to be versatile enough to identify many bacteria and viruses,” he says. “It’s entirely possible we’ll be able to adapt these sensors rapidly to address other health issues, potentially even new viruses that require quick detection to prevent global pandemics.”

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