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Facial recognition, robotics to aid chick vaccination

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Applied Life Sciences & Systems (ALS-S) researchers are developing a vaccination system with the potential to improve bird health and productivity and reduce the need for antibiotics.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded an $800,000 Seeding Solutions grant to ALS-S, a start-up company that is using imaging and robotics technology to develop a device for vaccinating newly hatched chicks.

According to FFAR, this device is designed to provide an efficient system for high-throughput vaccination that potentially can enhance bird health, increase productivity for poultry producers and reduce the need for antibiotics. The FFAR grant has been matched with funding from Merck Animal Health, for a total investment of $1.6 million.

Large commercial hatcheries, which currently produce more than 1 million chicks per week in the U.S., apply vaccines in spray form to groups of day-old chicks. The limited precision of this method results in leaving an estimated 5-20% of chicks not vaccinated or only partially vaccinated and vulnerable to disease. Disease outbreaks require use of antibiotics to treat secondary infections and reduce overall productivity.

ALS-S researchers are developing a vaccine delivery system that uses imaging technology to recognize each bird’s position and deliver an individualized vaccine dose to each chick. By significantly increasing the rate of successfully vaccinated chicks, this method has the potential to provide greater protection against disease and infection.

Currently, the only way to apply vaccines to chicks at the individual level is to do so manually, which is not viable at the commercial scale.

FFAR executive director Sally Rockey said the foundation “is proud to support a project with such exciting potential to enhance productivity for poultry producers by improving vaccine effectiveness and make strides toward combating antimicrobial resistance by reducing the need for antibiotics. Using facial recognition and robotics technology to deliver vaccinations with greater precision is a prime example of harnessing innovations developed outside the agriculture sector for the health and productivity of our food system.”

Initial research will focus on preventing coccidiosis — an intestinal disease that causes a variety of issues, including poor feed efficiency, and often results in the need for antibiotic treatment of subsequent infection, FFAR said. Coccidiosis is the most prevalent disease in U.S. broiler poultry production and is estimated to cause hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses.

The research is being led by principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turpin, ALS-S vice president, Bio Process Sciences.

“ALS-S is working to address the unmet needs of the poultry industry, starting with the development of a system to improve the vaccination of day-of-hatch chicks,” Turpin said. “We are excited to receive this award from FFAR with matching funds from Merck Animal Health. This support will aid in the development and validation of our high-throughput, individual vaccination system and ultimately result in improved solutions for the poultry industry.”

This project is supported by FFAR through its Seeding Solutions grant program, which calls for bold, innovative and potentially transformative research proposals in the foundation’s seven Challenge Areas. This grant supports the Protein Challenge, which aims to enhance and improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of producing diverse proteins for a growing global population.

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