Exploring the epidemiology of parasitic infections affecting non-human primates with potential for improving welfare and conservation strategies

The opportunity to study of parasitic infections in exotic non-human primates is often limited to the study of wild populations or involves the use of specialised research facilities. However, a third option is also available, and that is the study of animals kept at menageries (zoos/safari parks).

This project will work collaboratively with a UK-based zoological facility to explore the epidemiology of parasitic infections affecting non-human primates, and the potential for improving welfare and conservation strategies, and developing understanding of potential zoonotic risk in wild populations.

The initial aims of the project will be to identify and characterise the full range of helminth and protozoan infections in non-human primate populations and relate findings group demographics of animal colonies, looking at social status, sex and age. Secondly, survey of the enclosure for varying levels of risk to parasite infection and how this relates to the movements of individuals and their infection status will be undertaken.  Thirdly, these data will be used to inform design of a control strategy proposal to reduce the prevalence of the disease in colonies of non-human primates.  Finally, the study will also explore the risk infected colonies pose in the wider context of a UK safari park and the extent of relevance to wild populations for conservation means and in assessing zoonotic risk to humans living nearby. The results of this study will help inform the wider zoo and safari community with regards to the surveillance of their exotic and domestic animals, the control of parasitic infections and the monitoring of these populations within a one health perspective.  Outcomes may go on to inform policy regarding the running of these facilities and in assessment of zoonotic risk in wild populations.

Where does the project lie on the Translational Pathway?

T1 – Basic Research, T2 – Clinical Research, T3 – Evidence into Practice, T4 – Practice to Policy/Population

Expected Outputs

The characterisation of the parasite populations with a domestic (UK) colony of non-human primates will be an important understanding of the epidemiology, zoonotic risk and potential bio-security threat such animal groupings may have. The methods used to interrogate and study the population (sample collection, animal ID, molecular characterisation of faecal and eDNA samples) will be adapted and developed for a zoo/safari park setting. Once completed, this study would then act as a guide to conducting similar studies for other exotic and domestic animal populations, and with relevance to zoonotic human/animal infection epidemiology and control, as well as helping inform code of practice and policy regarding the keeping of animal colonies and surveillance where wild animals are in close association with human populations.

Training Opportunities

The students will be trained in molecular methods such as primer design and PCR assay development, DNA extraction, eDNA sampling, PCR/qPCR, sequencing and analysis of bioinformatic data. The student will also learn about animal behaviour/husbandry methods for non-human primates although the scope of the project has flexibility to include a range of wild and captive animals where appropriate. An understanding and involvement in the treatment and clinical diagnosis of disease of helminth infections and practical methods in conducting a treatment intervention for parasites in non-human primates will also be available.

More broadly, LSTM provides a unique programme of training opportunities, events and seminars (updated each semester) to encourage students to meet other researchers from a wide range of specialities to grow their network. LSTM utilises innovative Technology Enhanced Learning initiatives to ensure that students working in the field are able to interact as fully as possible with training sessions. The full catalogue of MSc modules delivered at LSTM are available for study and students can attend lectures and seminars.  The third supervisor of this PhD project is also the Director of MSc Studies in Tropical Disease Biology, and can offer a range of additional training opportunities within and around the project focus.  Specific training can include modules/lectures/online resources, covering ‘Research Methods, ‘Applied Bioinformatics’, Molecular Biology’, Advanced Statistics’ and ‘Epidemiology’ to name but a few over the time course of the PhD.

 A student undertaking this PhD training will also engage in an ongoing, self-directed programme of training and professional development throughout their studies; reflecting on their skills and identifying training needs via a ‘Development Needs Analysis’ (DNA), which is reviewed annually as a key component of the student’s formal progress review.

Skills Required

The student would have achieved at least a high-class BSc degree in a biological science with good content/understanding and/or additional experience of molecular biology and/or biochemistry and genetics.   A knowledge of organism culture and bioinformatics is desirable but not essential.  Experience overseas in resource-poor settings, experience with animal handling, and basic knowledge of behavioural research is desirable but again not essential. 

Key Publications associated with this project

Standley CJ, Wade CM, Stothard JR. A fresh insight into transmission of schistosomiasis: A

misleading tale of Biomphalaria in Lake Victoria. Plos One. 2011;6(10).

Al-Shehri H, Stanton MC, LaCourse JE, Atuhaire A, Arinaitwe M, Wamboko A, et al. An

extensive burden of giardiasis associated with intestinal schistosomiasis and anaemia in school

children on the shoreline of Lake Albert, Uganda. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical

Medicine and Hygiene. 2016;110(10):597-603.

Al-Shehri H, Koukounari A, Stanton MC, Adriko M, Arinaitwe M, Atuhaire A, et al.

Surveillance of intestinal schistosomiasis during control: a comparison of four diagnostic tests

across five Ugandan primary schools in the Lake Albert region. Parasitology. 2018;145(13):1715-

22..

Stothard JR, Campbell SJ, Osei-Atweneboana MY, Durant T, Stanton MC, Biritwum NK, et

al. Towards interruption of schistosomiasis transmission in sub-Saharan Africa: developing an

appropriate environmental surveillance framework to guide and to support 'end game' interventions.

Infectious Diseases of Poverty. 2017;6.

Stothard JR, Mugisha L, Standley CJ. Stopping schistosomes from 'monkeying-around' in

chimpanzees. Trends in Parasitology. 2012;28(8):320-6.

LSTM Themes and Topics – Key Words

Neglected Tropical Diseases

CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS:

Application Portal closes: Thursday 9th February 2023 (12:00 noon UK time)

Shortlisting complete by: End Feb/early March 2023

Interviews by: Late March/early April 2023

Further information on the MRC CASE/DTP 2023/24 programme and how to apply can be found here