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Luca Villa graduated in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Milan in December 2016 with full marks and honors. His thesis, entitled “Epidemiology and genotypes of Toxoplasma gondii in wild boars and in pigs raised in intensive farms” (Supervisor: Prof. Maria Teresa Manfredi, Co-Supervisor: Dr. Alessia Libera Gazzonis), awarded the prize “Premio Giovane Laureato 2017” of the Italian Society of Swine Breeding and Pathology. He spent the fourth year of the degree course at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) as an Erasmus student. After the degree, thanks to an Erasmus Traineeship grant, he spent a 6 months period at the Saluvet Research group (Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, Complutense University of Madrid, Spain), where he deepened his knowledge in biology, epidemiology, diagnosis and control of Apicomplexa parasites of domestic and wild animals.



Degree in Veterinary Medicine (1984) and Ph.D in Veterinary Pathology (1990) at the University of Milan. She is assistant professor in Veterinary Parasitology. Her research is mostly focused on diseases of zoonotic concern (echinococcosis, anisakiasis, toxoplasmosis). Her scientific interests include parasites (identification, biology and ecology) and parasitic diseases (epidemiology, diagnosis, treatment, control and prevention). She is author and coauthor of > 250 scientific papers, book chapters and abstracts of national and international conferences. She is Editor of the Italian version of the Veterinary Parasitology textbook (Blackwell, 2009; EMSI 2010) and Veterinary parasitology reference manual (Blackwell, 2009; EMSI 2011).




Title: Epidemiology and molecular characterization of selected Protozoa in domestic ruminants


The phylum Apicomplexa includes protozoan species affecting farm animals, i.e. Toxoplasma gondii, Neospora caninum and Besnoitia besnoiti in ruminants, that are of considerable veterinary and economical importance worldwide. T. gondii is recognized as one of major causes of infectious reproductive failure, especially in small ruminants. Furthermore, toxoplasmosis is one of the more common parasitic zoonoses: the consumption of both raw or undercooked meat from infected animals and unpasteurized dairy products is an important source of parasite infection for humans. N. caninum is a major cause of abortion in cattle, and also in sheep and goats the parasite causes reproductive disorders and clinical disease. B. besnoiti cause besnoitiosis, an emerging or re-emerging chronic disease of cattle in Europe, responsible for economic losses particularly on beef cattle, because of debilitation, mortality, production decreases and infertility in males. 


Data regarding epidemiology and molecular characterization of T. gondii, N. caninum and B. besnoiti in cattle in Italy are scarce or limited to certain species or areas or missing. There is a need for exhaustive investigation on Apicomplexan parasites: particularly, molecular characterization of parasite populations is the main point to understand how genetic diversity influences epidemiology and pathogenicity of protozoa infections. In the project, T. gondii, N. caninum and B. besnoiti infections will be investigated by an integrated approach of serological and molecular techniques that allows a multi-level comprehension of the epidemiology and a better characterization of the risk factors; therefore, the main aim is to characterize autochthonous parasite isolates.


Concerning T. gondii infection, the purpose is the collection of epidemiological data on T. gondii genotypes occurring in cattle bred or slaughtered in Northern Italy. In fact, to correctly evaluate the risk for humans from consumption of meat of infected animals, determination of parasite genotype involved is crucial, since T. gondii strains have different pathological effects on human health.


For N. caninum, the parasite involved in abortion of cattle will be molecular characterized, as the biological characteristics of the parasite isolate influence infection dynamics, clinical outcome and immune responses. Another aim is to estimate the within-herd prevalence and investigate the abortion pattern in the herd in farms with abortion outbreaks related to involved parasite genotype. 


Finally, the project aims to evaluate the epidemiology of B. besnoiti infection in ruminants bred in Northern Italy and also to characterize autochthonous isolates of B. besnoiti affecting cattle since parasite invasion and proliferation, and clinical outcome, could be influenced by Besnoitia strain involved. 


Expected results will allow to have updated data on epidemiology and molecular characterization of T. gondii, N. caninum and B. besnoiti in domestic ruminants in Northern Italy. Obtained data will represent useful tools for the development of monitoring plans aimed to control protozoa infections, both of zoonotic (T. gondii) and zootechnical (T. gondii, N. caninum, B. besnoiti) importance in cattle. 



Figure 1: Typical skin lesions in the chronic phase of besnoitiosis in a dairy cow


Figure 2: Neospora caninum tachyzoites as seen in Immunofluorescent antibody test