Wearable biosensors are being developed to help monitor the health of livestock, particularly dairy cows, with the aim of identifying the disease brucellosis at an earlier stage. In tandem, a portable test is being developed to allow rapid confirmatory diagnosis of suspected cases. The UK-China project is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care (administered by Innovate UK) and Cranfield University is the collaboration’s academic lead, working with Scottish companies Biotangents and IceRobotics. The Chinese consortium includes Shanghai Veterinary Research Institute and Nanjing Agricultural University, and is funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

‘Fitbit’ for cows will track health accurately

IceRobotics’ product of livestock wearable sensors are non-invasively placed on livestock monitoring daily activities 24/7. Highly advanced processing of this information will help vets to closely monitor any changes in behaviour which could be early indicators for illness and allow them to shortlist livestock at an early stage. Biotangents is also developing a diagnostic test which will be portable and able to be used in the field by vets. This test will be used to evaluate samples from shortlisted animals and confirm if the disease is present.

These two types of technology will form a shortlist-and-test diagnostic platform. IceRobotics and Cranfield University’s Dr Jerry Luo, Lecturer in Energy Storage and Harvesting, will further develop its data analysis for the disease of brucellosis, while Biotangents and Dr Iva Chianella, Lecturer in Advanced Functional Polymers at Cranfield University, will create the advanced diagnostic test using Biotangents’ proprietary platform diagnostics technology, Moduleic SensingTM.

Dr Jerry Luo is an expert in wearables and data mining. He says, “The advanced data processing algorithm we’re developing will enable us to track individual cow health more accurately and report illness at a very early stage. This could be crucial in detecting changes in behaviours and pinpointing the diseased animal in the herd. Early intervention could prevent the disease spreading, so this really will be a vital tool for vets and livestock owners.”

Dr Iva Chianella, expert on biosensors technology, says “The molecular diagnostic device developed at Biotangents Ltd issuitable for pen-side testing and will allow a quick and accurate identification of infectious diseases, such as brucellosis, in livestock. This avoids the long delay and difficulty of sending samples to a laboratory. After animals with behavioral patterns that may indicate infection have been spotted by the IceRobotics wearable sensors, their milk/serum will be analysed in-field using the Biotangents diagnostic device - obtaining an accurate diagnosis within two hours . This will permit quick identification of infected animals and therefore a prompt intervention, which will limit spread of the infection to other animals and humans (preventing outbreaks), with a positive impact on economic development and population health.”

Lina Gasiūnaitė, Director of Science at Biotangents, says, “This project opens up an exciting opportunity to develop and trial an innovative, 'shortlist and test' approach, combining Biotangents’ cutting-edge molecular diagnostics with IceRobotics’ animal behaviour monitoring platform for brucellosis detection. This approach has the potential to streamline identification of diseased animals for other infectious diseases, and we hope that this project will lead to further collaborations between the project partners in the quest to reduce the impacts of infectious diseases on animals and farmers.”

Dr Vivi Thorup, Lead Animal Scientist at IceRobotics, says, ”IceRobotics is committed to delivering science-based information to our clients via our sensor solution. This project allows us to advance our sensor capabilities even further, empowering our clients to be at the forefront of disease detection and animal wellbeing.”

Swift interventions could prevent disease spreading

Brucellosis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that primarily affects livestock but can also be passed onto humans. Infected cows have abnormal pregnancies and lose their calves. As there is no effective cure, the affected animals must be slaughtered. The current regulations require all cattle that have had contact with infected animals to be slaughtered. Although the UK is officially brucellosis free, cases of the disease have been increasing in China in both animals and humans and it is seen regularly in Ireland and other European countries.

The ambition for the project is to detect this infection earlier and allow swift interventions to control the spread of the disease and minimise the risk of transmission to humans.

The three-year project will conclude in 2022 and received £687,673 via Innovate UK from the Department of Health and Social Care.