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‘Out of the lab and into the field–with our clients’: Phil Toye on getting the balance in animal health research right

For the November 2011 ‘liveSTOCK Exchange’ event at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Phil Toye, an Australian immunologist who leads ILRI’s animal health research on development of diagnostics and vaccines for diseases of farm animals in Africa and other developing regions, reflects on the changes he’s seen at ILRI.

Toye first came to ILRI’s Nairobi campus in 1986, when it was then the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD). He left ILRAD in 1994 to join a medium-sized biotech  company in Australia. The Nairobi  institute he left behind was focused almost exclusively on developing vaccines against two devastating cattle diseases of Africa.

When Toye returned to the Nairobi campus in 2006, he experienced at first hand the ‘dramatic’ changes that had occurred in the intervening years. He came to an institute ‘with a much broader range of expertise, going well beyond molecular biologists and immunologists, to sociologists and economists, and to people who study and understand market dynamics and market access by the poor.

‘I think this gives ILRI a unique potential to look at the problems affecting small livestock owners, poor livestock owners, and developing practical solutions for their livestock problems,’ says Toye.

Among the achievements his team has made over the last five years, Toye cites that of building a much more balanced portfolio of activities. ‘Five years ago, our major activities concerned East Coast fever, in particular development of a vaccine against this disease, with a few smaller activities. Now we also work on African swine fever and contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia. What’s important is that we’re developing these technologies while looking beyond them; we’re looking at the social aspects of the livestock owners that these diseases affect, looking at the ability of these technologies to meet end-user needs, and at how the technologies could be effectively rolled out.

‘The other balance we brought to ILRI’s animal health portfolio was to increase the number of projects focused on more immediate impacts. An example is our work underpinning the roll out of an infection-and-treatment method of  vaccination against East Coast fever, a vaccine that is protecting the lives of cattle, particularly in northern Tanzania and also in Kenya and Uganda.

‘The development of a pen-side test for pig tapeworm is another more recent outcome of ours. And more recently still is the development of a thermo-stable vaccine—one that remains stable without the need for refrigeration—for a disease of sheep and goats known by its French name ‘peste des petite ruminants’.

‘A third achievement of our group is development of field-based activities. In the last five years, we initiated a project in Busia, in western Kenya, called ‘IDEAL,’ which is funded by the Wellcome Trust and led by the University of Edinburgh. For this project, we established a field laboratory in Busia. That laboratory has since been used by another Wellcome Trust-funded project, ‘People, Animals and Zoonoses’ Project, or PAZ for short, led by Eric Fevre, and more recently by a team doing substantial work on African swine fever led by Richard Bishop.

‘Such work is getting people out of the laboratory and interacting with our clients—poor livestock owners.

‘In future, we need to get the balance right between the amount of applied research we do, which has more immediate impacts, and undertaking more basic research to solve the more intractable problems. The latter work of course carries higher risk but also can have higher returns if we manage to develop solutions. That’s versus spreading ourselves too thin over several projects, where we don’t really have traction.

Our moving into the CGIAR Research Programs should give us even more focus and impacts in future.’

Watch a 5-minute filmed interview of Phil Toye:

On 9 and 10 November 2011, the ILRI Board of Trustees hosts a 2-day ‘liveSTOCK Exchange’ to discuss and reflect on livestock research for development. The event will synthesize sector and ILRI learning and help frame future livestock research for development directions.

The liveSTOCK Exchange will also mark the leadership and contributions of Dr. Carlos Seré as ILRI Director General.  See all posts in this series / Sign up for email alerts

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