On 26 February 2011 Professor Peter Timms of the Qld University of Technology delivered an address on progress towards developing a vaccine for chlamydia disease in koalas
Two types of chlamydia bacteria are known in koalas - Chlamydia pneumoniae, which is also found in all humans worldwide and of lesser importance in koalas - and Chlamydia pecorum, the most common and deadly strain.
In its active form the bacteria infect a koala's urogenital tract rendering them infertile, and will ultimately cause the death of the koala. So with up to 50% of koalas called in to wildlife rescue groups showing clinical signs of the disease, a vaccine to eliminate the problem could also ultimately save the koala from extinction.
At the time of his address Timm’s research was nearing the end of its first phase, with 18 female koalas from the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary about to complete their vaccinations. The next phase was to immunise koalas that had undergone treatment for ocular and urogenital chlamydia, and the third stage would then identify variations between cell wall molecular make-up across Queensland, NSW and Victoria. After that trials would start on male koalas.
At that point, delivery of the antigens by a simple nose-drop form would also be tested, and a further plan was to develop a boutique drug of possibly up to 10 antigens in a single dose, including an antigen for retrovirus, a lethal immune deficiency in koalas akin to AIDS.
It is exciting to learn that the final stage of research is now completed, with a 30-day 'burst relief' capsule lodged under the skin of wild koalas administering a single dose of antigens, safely avoiding a buildup of tolerance for the chlamydia bacteria, and without any adverse effects.
Although it has been a long and winding road for this team, they deserve a medal for their efforts in helping to save a globally-adored iconic animal.
However the causes of the stress-related disease in koalas will still be present, so it rests on us now to ensure these are properly addressed.
- Patricia Edwards
This article was originally published in the VOICES FOR THE EARTH column in The Daily Examiner on December 10, 2018.