Researchers get to the heart of fish health with new diagnostic tool

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By Milthon Lujan

UK – A group of aquaculture researchers in Scotland is aiming to develop a simple and cost-effective mass testing tool that could significantly enhance fish health and wellbeing, by quickly and proactively detecting and differentiating between a range of cardiac conditions in salmon.

The consortium will seek to better screen and characterise the heart health of salmon by studying specific blood biomarkers that indicate the presence of cardiomyopathies such as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI), cardiomyopathy syndrome (CMS), and pancreas disease (PD). Assessing the diseases with high precision is difficult with current diagnostic techniques, particularly when they are at their early stages.

Bringing together experts from the University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh, Cooke Aquaculture Scotland, Life Diagnostics Ltd, Moredun Research Institute, Benchmark Genetics Ltd, and the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), the project will deliver a new tool that is simple to use for fish health professionals, easily deployable at fish farms, and brings immediate and practical advantages in disease prevention, earlier treatment, stock management, and breeding for disease resistance.

The researchers will collect and analyse salmon blood to track changes in relevant biomarkers from fish at a variety of Cooke Aquaculture Scotland sites and trials of Benchmark Atlantic salmon strains over the next few months. The University of Edinburgh will assess the samples for cardiac disease, determine the health status of the fish, and provide validation data of the diagnostic tests.

The tests – which should return results in as little as 45 minutes – could help producers to understand how fish are affected and inform best stock management choices, as well as identifying fish with greater physiological resistance to cardiomyopathies.

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Philippe Sourd, senior veterinarian at Cooke Aquaculture Scotland, said: “The aquaculture sector is science-led and as responsible salmon producers we are constantly looking at practical innovation that maximises fish health and welfare. This project could equip us with the tools to conduct meaningful population health screening at pen or farm level, which will further increase our understanding of salmon cardiac health patterns.

“Obtaining real-time data, along with reliable and accurate information on the condition of our salmon stock, is a priority as it enables effective decision-making processes and early intervention to promote the health, wellbeing, and performance of our livestock. By working with academic partners to prove the diagnostic tools, we believe this technology can benefit salmon farmers – and potentially fish farmers in general – as an essential tool to drive fish health and wellbeing strategies.”

The latest project builds on a previous SAIC-funded initiative with Benchmark Genetics Ltd, Cooke Aquaculture Scotland, Life Diagnostics and Moredun Research Institute, which aimed to identify biomarkers in fish blood that could be used to detect cardiomyopathies induced by the piscine myocarditis virus (PMCV) before fish developed clinical symptoms. With the addition of the University of Glasgow’s expertise, the researchers will draw on the experience of using similar biomarkers in terrestrial animals – such as dairy cows – to detect and mitigate against disease.

Professor David Eckersall, an expert in veterinary biochemistry at the University of Glasgow, said: “Similar types of tests for cardiac biomarkers are deployed and used routinely in other species of animals. A big part of this project will be translating what we know about detecting and diagnosing cardiomyopathies in other animals to fish. Any form of disease mitigation requires knowledge of population and this project is aiming to produce a tool that can give veterinarians and farmers the data they need to make the best possible choices for their fish.”

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Developing a non-lethal mass testing system for cardiomyopathies could make a substantial difference to a growing challenge in the aquaculture sector. During 2018 in Norway, CMS alone was considered one of the biggest issues for fish farmers, with associated costs estimated at €145 million.

Heather Jones, CEO at SAIC, added: “A simple, cost-effective, and proactive test that helps screen fish populations for cardiomyopathies would be an excellent addition to aquaculture’s toolbox for enhancing the health and wellbeing of salmon stocks. Not only would it provide insight into the development of diseases on farms, but it could inform the wider picture of fish health and, over time, help reduce stock mortalities through enhanced insights. The range of skills that this project brings together underlines the fact that through collaboration we can develop innovative ways of addressing some of the sector’s biggest challenges.”

Source: University of Glasgow

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