Researcher focuses on immune development in dairy animals

By Jim Massey, Freelance writer

The first few weeks of life can be critical to the development of an animal’s immune defenses for a lifetime, according to a new faculty member in the Animal and Dairy Sciences Department at UW–Madison.

Lautaro Rostoll-Cangiano, who joined the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences faculty in January of 2023, is conducting extensive research on the intricate dynamics between several on-farm management factors, such as colostrum feeding, probiotics and antibiotics, and their impact on intestinal and immune development in dairy animals. It’s a complex but yet important area of study, as dairy farmers understand that early-life health can have a long-term impact on dairy animals’ growth and ultimate productivity. 

Lautaro Rostoll-Cangiano

Rostoll-Cangiano is a native of central Argentina, where his first exposure to agriculture was helping a veterinarian conduct pregnancy checks and artificial insemination on a local dairy farm. He was originally thinking about attending veterinary school but eventually settled on majoring in agricultural engineering – in Argentina that is a combination between agronomy and animal sciences – at the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba. 

When he finished his undergraduate degree he was working at the National Institute of Agriculture, equivalent to the USDA in the U.S., and for a nutrition company as a consultant. While attending a conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he connected with a professor from the University of Florida, who invited him to do an internship at his lab in Florida. He ended up staying in Florida for two years, where he earned a master’s degree while conducting research on the role of weaning on inflammation, immunosuppression and insulin resistance in beef cattle.

From there, Rostoll-Cangiano and his new wife, Macarena (married in 2016), moved to Canada, where he worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Guelph in Ontario. 

“They have a really good program in calf nutrition and calf health, and I wanted to work in the area of intestinal function, gut health,” he says. “When I started working there with some people in the vet school, I shifted to an immunology and microbiology focus. It was an interdisciplinary program, which was really nice.”

Fast forward to late 2022, when Rostoll-Cangiano responded to a post for an assistant professor position at UW–Madison, funded by the Dairy Innovation Hub. 

He wasn’t sure whether he should apply because he was still finishing his Ph.D. work, but he says he is very happy he did.

“They were looking for someone that does the type of research I’m doing so it ended up being a really good fit. I really enjoy my position and the people I work with,” he says. 

Rostoll-Cangiano has conducted research that shows that the use of prophylactics in milk for young calves, used to prevent diarrhea and respiratory problems, don’t seem to work very well. 

“Actually there seems to be very little to no benefit,” he says. “Disturbances to the immune system can limit the development of beneficial microbial cells. Then you can have pathogens or bacteria coming in that can cause all sorts of problems.

“In humans we see that babies that are born via C-section or that are administered a lot of antibiotics as babies or that are born premature often don’t have immune systems that work as they should. They are more prone to allergies, asthma or glutton or lactose intolerance. It can be the same thing with calves, so we are looking at extending the feeding of colostrum as a way of helping the animals develop a strong immune system.”

Much of Lautaro Rostoll-Cangiano’s research centers on his work with dairy calves and cows.

If the immune system is strong, animals are able to recognize infection and cure it in a fast and efficient way, he says.

Animals and humans carry a lot of bacteria in their guts, he says, that are beneficial to health. In fact, he says our intestines are colonized by trillions of microorganisms that help us digest food, synthesize important vitamins and regulate our immune system. Our bodies carry more microbial cells than human cells by a factor of 10. 

Rostoll-Cangiano says he is delighted with his first-year experiences at UW–Madison and is looking forward to potentially extending his research to human health work.

“I really like the institution and the department,” he says. “There are a lot of possibilities for research and collaboration here. It’s a beautiful city and a very nice campus. I really like the colleagues I work with, so I couldn’t ask for a better place to do my research.”

Rostoll-Cangiano, 32, says he has already developed relationships with colleagues in the microbiology and pediatrics departments at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, so he hopes to someday transfer some of his research on calves to neo-natal babies. 

He began his first semester of teaching a class at the UW this spring, with a class in animal health. He will also mentor graduate and undergraduate students in the areas of animal physiology and dairy calf and cow health.