Herbs: we usually think of them as something that can add flavour to our favourite dish or make a refreshing tea. In fact, herbs have been used since ancient times to treat illness and disease. Now, researchers at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (unibz) are harnessing this power to tackle an insidious enemy.
Dr Ioanna Poulopoulou, a researcher in the Animal Science Research Laboratory at unibz, is part of the Project Herbal group investigating if these versatile plants can be used to fight endoparasites, like roundworms, that live in infected animals’ intestines. Parasite infections are a huge problem for farming communities around the globe. Not only are there economic losses for the farmers, the animals can also suffer severe disease—one worm can produce 70,000 eggs in one day—and even death.
Farm animals are routinely treated with antiparasitic drugs called anthelmintics as a preventative measure, but resistance to these drugs is an increasing problem. Resistant parasites spread through contaminated faeces, so animals like sheep and goats that are free to graze outdoors are particularly vulnerable. What’s more, there are only a limited number of anthelmintic drugs licensed to treat parasite infections in these animals, so farmers’ options could soon run out. The advantage of using herbs as a weapon is they have the potential to bypass this resistance and be a cheap and natural way for farmers to combat these parasites.
Ioanna’s work on Project Herbal is a collaboration with two other universities in the region to investigate the effects of alpine herbs on parasites. She’s using herbal extracts and essential oils and examining how they affect the development of parasite eggs in the laboratory. Out of ten different herbs tested, she found three to be particularly effective for parasite infections in laying hens, including Cicerbita alpine, the alpine sow-thistle. Ioanna says, ‘The next step would be to test these plant extracts against parasites from other species. We already know from our research that parasites in sheep and goats are resistant to the drugs that we use.’
unibz is well-placed to find a solution to the problem of antiparasitic drug resistance. It’s located in South Tyrol, an idyllic mountain province in the northernmost part of Italy. The local terrain encompasses the Alps and the Dolomites, which means that only small parcels of land are suitable for farming. This is an advantage for researchers like Ioanna as they can communicate directly with the small-scale farmers in the region. She says, “The direct contact we have with the farmers makes our lives easier in the sense that we advise something, we see the impact, we make changes, we have the results.”
Interacting with local communities and organisations is an important part of working at unibz since making a positive impact on life in South Tyrol is central to the university’s ethos. This is also true for Project Herbal, where one of the goals is to grow beneficial native herbs locally on a larger scale, so organic and conventional farmers in the region will have a cost-effective way of fighting parasite infections. But the effects of this project could be far-reaching and change the way farmers around the world tackle these parasites in the future. Ioanna and her colleagues have also been working with farmers recommending good management practices to help improve the sustainability of their farms. Ioanna says they were able to advise farmers about “how they could improve feeding practices in order to increase milk production and how good management of grazing lands could improve the parasitic load.”
Working with local farmers has given Ioanna the chance to get to know South Tyrol. Although she grew up by the seaside in Greece, she has grown to love the mountainous beauty of the region and has even taken up skiing as a hobby. Ioanna has also had the opportunity to work on her language skills as unibz is a trilingual university—German, Italian and English are all spoken there. She’s proficient in both English and German and has plans to work on her Italian in the future. Ioanna really enjoys her working environment, where she has the freedom to discuss and explore new ideas. She says, “The fascinating thing here is you can see directly the impact of your work. So it’s not that I am in a big city, at a big university where I don’t know the farmers... Here the farms are just right next to me, and I can see what I do.”
Ioanna is a researcher in the Animal Science Research Laboratory at unibz and part of the Project Herbal group. She has a PhD in animal nutrition from the Agricultural University of Athens.