Hyun Soon Lillehoj, an international leader in animal immunology and genomics, has made pioneering scientific discoveries that have helped prevent and treat diseases in commercial poultry, protecting the health of consumers and saving the industry billions of dollars.
During three decades as a molecular biologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Lillehoj has helped mitigate the use of antibiotics in poultry, finding that certain food supplements, probiotics, nutrients and vaccines can replace antibiotics as an effective means of enhancing the immune system and fighting common parasitic diseases and bacterial infections.
Concerns have been intensifying in the U.S. over the widespread use of antibiotics in poultry and other food sources, which health authorities say contributes to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. As a result, these antibiotics are no longer effective in treating infections in humans. These so-called drug-resistant superbugs kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, and infect hundreds of thousands, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
“Her work really looks at how can we produce poultry in a way that is safe and how can we produce those animals in a way that reduces the use of drugs,” said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the administrator of the Agricultural Research Service. “The dollar value of her work is in the billions.”
The USDA estimates that the parasitic and bacterial poultry diseases of the type Lillehoj is working to combat result in combined losses of more than $5 billion worldwide.
The list of Lillehoj’s accomplishments is long and impressive, and have led to safer poultry products on the market in the United States and other countries.
She has developed novel diagnostic and therapeutic products, and discovered DNA markers for the genetic selection of disease-resistant chickens, paving the way for breeding healthier chickens that will benefit both consumers and the nation’s $45 billion poultry industry.
Lillehoj also has identified natural antimicrobial molecules that have anti-cancer properties and kill infectious parasites; discovered a second-generation parasite vaccine with an improved protection profile over current vaccines; developed therapeutic antibodies that boost immunity for poultry; formulated health-promoting probiotics for veterinary use; and discovered organic, plant-derived herbal extracts and essential oils that fight infectious diseases affecting animals and humans.
She is recognized as a world leader in understanding host-pathogen interactions of an avian parasite that is closely related to human malaria, and that is a major cause of disease affecting poultry and livestock. She also has done original research on a bacterium that is one of the most common causes of food-borne illness in the U.S.
These scientific breakthroughs are documented in 10 U.S. and international patents, more than 390 peer-reviewed scientific papers, 14 book chapters and 230 worldwide collaborations with academia, foreign governments and private industry.
Darius Swietlik, the Northeast area director for the Agricultural Research Service, said Lillehoj is “an extremely accomplished scientist” who has contributed practical solutions and rigorous science to “help farmers and consumers have access to healthy animal-derived foods.”
“Her commitment and hard work and persistence is wonderful,” said Swietlik.
Lillehoj also has been instrumental in developing long-term strategic plans for genomics approaches to animal health research, and utilized these plans to develop collaborations between federal agencies, private industry and international researchers. She created one of the first gene libraries from commercial chickens and deposited more than 55,000 individual gene sequences from this database into the public domain, helping researchers with information that could lead to breeding poultry with superior resistance to parasites.
In addition, Lillehoj has established 32 cooperative research agreements for technology transfer and commercialization of products to enhance global food security and safety. She also commercialized 40 poultry immune reagents through the first U.S. Veterinary Immunological Reagent Network from 2006 to 2014 to fill the technological gap between clinical medicine and veterinary science, and has mentored more than 120 young scientists.
Catherine Woteki, USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics, described Lillehoj as an “outstanding scientist and public servant who has worked on problems of importance.” Her work, said Woteki, has “advanced science and had very practical applications” by “developing alternatives for the prevention and treatment of diseases in poultry.”
Originally from South Korea, Lillehoj came to the U.S. in 1969 with $200 in her pocket in hopes of studying medicine. One of seven children, she said her father had died of liver cancer, her options for an education in Korea were limited and she was given the small sum of money and told by her mother, “Go.”
She received a college scholarship, eventually got her Ph.D., and went to work at the National Institutes of Health. She was recruited by the USDA in 1984 and never looked back.
Lillehoj said she views her work not so much as a job, but as a mission to give back to this country and contribute to science. “I want to show people that making progress with farmers and with animals really matters, and makes an impact on human health,” she said.