"Just like little babies, chickens can get sick with many infections, especially during the first week of their life," said Goonewardene. "It is the most crucial time of their growth."
Commercial hatcheries formerly used antibiotics to prevent bacterial diseases in hatchlings. But in May 2014, the hatcheries voluntarily abandoned this practice to limit the presence of antibiotics in poultry and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria ̶ a health risk to humans.
Over the last 12 years, the students' supervisor, Susantha Gomis, has developed a synthetic, non-infectious bacterial DNA molecule to boost disease immunity in chicks.
Now Gomis is using the molecule to trigger the chicks' immune system and shield them from possible infections. Unlike vaccines, which usually target only one disease, the molecule prepares chickens to fight a broad range of bacteria.
This new technique is poised to dramatically decrease economic losses for producers. Because egg injections cause minimal stress to baby chicks, they will be better able to fight infections as soon as they leave the hatchery.
The molecule could also help the Canadian poultry industry find alternatives to antibiotics to protect chickens' health.
The students are now working to increase the effectiveness of the molecule and its absorption in the chicks' bodies. To do so, they are ‘coating' the molecule with microscopic particles between one and 100 nanometers in size.
The students found the molecule quickly protected the chicks, and did so with a survival rate close to 80 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for non-treated hatchlings.
The molecule has to be directly injected into chicken eggs before they hatch. Egg injections are a cheap, well-known practice in the veterinary field, but using an immunity-boosting DNA molecule combined with nanotechnology is innovative.
The team has already filed a patent for this new technique, and the next step will be a larger field trial.
They are also trying a different aerosol-based technique that allows the chicks to breathe in the molecule. This approach has shown promising results. Western Economic Diversification Canada is investing in its development.
The potential for the new molecule to protect animal health has raised the interest of the federal agency NSERC, which provided major funding for the project. Other partners include the Canadian Poultry Research Council, Chickens Farmers of Saskatchewan, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and Alberta Chicken Producers.
Gunawardana and Goonewardene are a winning team at work and in their everyday life, helping each other adapt to the challenges of a new culture.
"We are family away from family," said Goonewardene.
Federica Giannelli is a graduate student intern in the U of S research profile and impact unit. This article first ran as part of the 2015 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S research profile office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.