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Dr. Zaheer Ahmed

Post-doctoral fellow helps control livestock disease in U.S. and abroad

Dr. Zaheer Ahmed

Zaheer Ahmed emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. where he now studies foot-and-mouth disease, which threatens populations of cloven-hoofed animals like cattle and pigs. At the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center, Ahmed’s research is helping develop vaccines to limit or stop transmission during outbreaks.

Zaheer Ahmed’s brother, two of his uncles, and his father’s cousin all shared the same profession, so Ahmed’s decision to be the fifth veterinarian in the family came rather naturally. Now 7,000 miles away from his Pakistani relatives, Ahmed is conducting research supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service at the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center, or PIADC, off the northeastern coast of Long Island, N.Y.

As a participant in the PIADC Research Participation Program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, Ahmed is part of a collaborative effort between the U.S. and Pakistan to help his native country fight the endemic and devastating foot-and-mouth disease, also known as FMD. FMD was last prevalent in the U.S. in 1929, but places like Great Britain, Japan and China have all suffered severe economic losses from  the slaughter of thousands of FMD-infected cattle in recent years.

The disease, which attacks cloven-hoofed animals like cattle, sheep and pigs, is characterized by fever and blister-like lesions whose erosions lead to discomfort, disability and lameness. Weight loss, decreased production of milk in dairy cows, inflammation of the heart and death can result. Highly contagious through common-source drinking water, farm equipment, and people wearing contaminated clothes, the disease spreads quickly and is often difficult to eradicate before infecting entire populations. The group at PIADC is geared towards developing better vaccines, diagnostics and control strategies to limit or stop transmission during outbreaks.

Ahmed received a D.V.M. in 1989 from the College of Veterinary Sciences in Lahore, Pakistan and graduated with a Ph.D. in veterinary sciences and microbiology from Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad in 2007. In 2010, he immigrated permanently to the U.S. with his wife and two kids and began his appointment with PIADC in October of that year. “I was in a continuous search for a position in a research organization. I thought Plum Island would be the best place for me for my professional development,” he said. At the lab, he gets to discuss different aspects of the disease with other scientists, the “best brains in the world,” according to Ahmed.

Before his fellowship at PIADC, Ahmed worked at the National Agricultural Research Center in Pakistan and helped investigate the bird flu virus that broke out in 2005. He was a lab manager at the National Reference Laboratory for poultry diseases and conducted trainings on sample collection, processing, biosafety, and security for a multinational group of scientists. He also had the opportunity to train and research in different labs around the world including those in Hong Kong, Egypt, the United Kingdom, and Italy. “We were able to control the influenza virus in Pakistan. Now controlling foot-and-mouth disease virus in Pakistan is a real challenge,” he said.

Ahmed’s research at PIADC focuses on understanding the genetic diversity of the virus. He does this by isolating the virus in cell cultures from samples received from Pakistan. “This type of work is done in high-containment facilities so that this virus cannot escape in the environment,” he said. Ideally, this information could be used by Pakistan to determine which vaccine to select for what region. Because there are seven known types and more than 60 subtypes of FMD, different regions of Pakistan could have different types, and immunity to one does not protect an animal against other types.

In addition to conducting virus isolation and molecular characterization, Ahmed’s research is helping establish a FMD control program in Pakistan. His research has already helped scientists there establish diagnostic techniques. “It’s a wonderful feeling to go back [to visit Pakistan],” said Ahmed, who thinks the coolest part of the post-doctoral appointment  is seeing the benefits of his research activities impact not only the U.S. (by increasing knowledge of circulating FMD virus strains and the necessary vaccines to protect against them) but also his home country. In September 2011, he and his mentor, Dr. Luis Rodriguez, traveled to Pakistan to participate in a training workshop. Six scientists from different regions of Pakistan were invited to become proficient in FMD diagnostics—a skill they could integrate in their own labs.

Ahmed’s initial two-year appointment was extended through September 2013. In this next year, he hopes to publish the findings of his team’s research in a reputable journal. After obtaining his American citizenship, his ultimate goal is to get a permanent position at a leading research facility like PIADC.