Manouk Vrieling (Veterinarian/ PhD student)

Manouk Vrieling (Veterinarian/ PhD student)

Veterinarian Manouk Vrieling conducts research that facilitates the development of a vaccine against the bacterium Staphylococcus aureusin cows. Manouk is a PhD student on a collaborative project of the Veterinary Faculty, UMC Utrecht, and the pharmaceutical company MSD Animal Health. She is one of the few veterinarians that chose to pursue a career in science. Manouk, as most veterinarians, does not mind getting her feet dirty, literally. However, the lab appealed to her a lot too. Fundamental research drives her curiosity. For the veterinary science and lifestock farming, there is a lot to be gained from doing basic research, especially in the field of Infection and Immunity. “This research on S. aureus in cows gives me a good chance to contribute to improving veterinary medicine. If we can actually develop an effective vaccine for cows, we could be close to a breakthrough to combat human infections caused by this bacterium as well.”

“An effective vaccine would change a lot”

“Treating infections caused by S. aureus is not always easy, because the bacterium can develop resistance to certain antibiotics. The best-known resistant form of S. aureus is MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This bacterium has also adapted well to the host’s immune system, which enables it to hide and avoid clearance in the host. Therefore, a long-term antibiotic treatment is required to treat an infection in cows. Such a treatment, however, facilitates the selection of resistance and poses a great threat to animal and human health. Antibiotic resistance is therefore high on the agenda of the WHO.”

Staphylococcus aureus in cows

“Cows kept for milk can suffer a lot due to an infection by S. aureus. Mastitis, i.e. infection of the udder, is seen most commonly, which in the worst case can be a reason to euthanize the animal. Moreover, the economic burden of S. aureus infections is large. A cow with mastitis cannot be used for her milk for a long period of time. The milk from an infected cow cannot end up in the milk reservoir under any circumstances, and it needs to be kept separate and destroyed. Additionally, the dairy farmer needs to take special measures to prevent infection of other cows. You can imagine that this bacterium is a problem for both the cow and the farmer. S. aureus that causes infections in cows is somewhat different from that causing infection in humans. Both variants are however very much alike. If we succeed in developing a vaccine for cows, a vaccine for humans will not be far away either. An effective vaccine would change a lot.”

Discover smart molecules

“Developing an effective vaccine against S. aureus has been tried globally for decades. However,  still with little success.  The bacterium secretes all sorts of ‘immune evasion molecules’: smart molecules that hamper the host’s immune system. For our project, we are trying to induce an immune reaction against these molecules in the cow, hoping the animal would consequently be better able to clear the infection itself.  My task is to discover and select the immune evasion molecules that are most suited for a vaccine. Therefore, I am investigating how the immune evasion molecules interfere with the cow’s immune system. My focus is on leukocidines, i.e. bicomponant toxins, of S. aureus, one of which very specifically kills the most important immune cells of the cow.”

“This is a very diverse and challenging type of work”

Solidarity and collaboration

“I started here as a PhD student almost three years ago, right after I graduated as veterinarian at the Utrecht University. This is a very diverse and challenging type of work. You get a lot of freedom to do what you want do and how you want to do it. The work environment is great, and we have a very close team in which people collaborate well and learn a lot from each other. Many of the great experiences at my current position have to do with the solidarity among my co-workers here at the department of Medical Microbiology. My work is exciting and special because of my colleagues! Among the groups and departments of Immunity and Infection there is a lot of knowledge and expertise present. If I need specific knowledge or expertise on a subject I am not too familiar with myself, it is usually within reach. The Uithof campus provides an ideal environment for good collaborations.”

Cows candy

“For our research we make use of blood donor cows. Sometimes people ask how that works exactly, operating with laboratory animals. A question I can relate to as a veterinarian. Fortunately, drawing blood is not a big intervention for cows, they do not notice much. Moreover, I train them with food. The cows like to come to me to earn food and thereby accept that small sting of the needle. They also have a fantastic spot in the beautiful barn at the Department of Farm Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and they are kept outside during the whole summer. If I am being honest, I do not think there are many cows that have such a good life and are treated as well as the cows that are being used for this research.”