TAG: "Veterinary medicine"

Mountain gorilla research shows genetic impact of population decline


The gorillas are genetically adapting to surviving in small populations.

Gorilla Doctors Mike Cranfield, left, of UC Davis, and Eddy Kambale, of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, treat a mountain gorilla in central Africa. (Photo by Gorilla Doctors/UC Davis)

The first project to sequence whole genomes from mountain gorillas reveals that many harmful genetic variations have been removed from the population through inbreeding, that mountain gorillas are genetically adapting to surviving in small populations, and that they have survived in small numbers for thousands of years.

The study, published today (April 9) in the journal Science, was by a research team led by Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and including the University of California, Davis. The project has given scientists and conservationists new insight into the impact of population decline on these critically endangered apes, and provides clues as to how apes and humans — their closely related cousins — adapt genetically to living in small populations.

“It is a small population, and there is inbreeding, but the study reveals some of the inbreeding was positive and got rid of a number of the deleterious genes,” said co-author Mike Cranfield, co-director of Gorilla Doctors, a partnership between the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

Mountain gorillas on the rise

The number of mountain gorillas living in the Virunga volcanic mountain range on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo plummeted to approximately 253 in 1981 as a result of habitat destruction and hunting. Since then, conservation efforts have bolstered numbers to approximately 480 among the Virunga population. (Their total world population is around 880 individuals.)

The Gorilla Doctors, whose veterinarians treat wild mountain gorillas injured by snares, provided blood samples for the study in collaboration with the Rwanda Development Board and The Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature. This enabled researchers to sequence the whole genomes of seven mountain gorillas for the first time.

Previously, only easily obtainable but poor-quality DNA from fecal and hair samples have been analyzed at a handful of genetic loci. Scientists can now see that these mountain gorillas, along with eastern lowland gorillas, their closely related neighbors, were two to three times less genetically diverse than gorillas from larger groups in western regions of central Africa.

While there are concerns that this low level of genetic diversity may make the mountain gorillas more vulnerable to environmental change and to disease, including cross-infectious strains of human viruses, the researchers were surprised to find that inbreeding has, in some ways, been genetically beneficial. Fewer harmful loss-of-function variants were found in the mountain gorilla population than in the more numerous western gorilla populations. These variants stop genes from working and can cause serious, often fatal, health conditions.

‘Mountain gorillas may be more resilient’

By analyzing the variations in each genome, researchers also discovered that mountain gorillas have survived in small numbers for thousands of years. Researchers were able to determine how the size of the population has changed over the past million years. According to their calculations, the average population of mountain gorillas has numbered in the hundreds for many thousands of years; far longer than previously thought.

“We worried that the dramatic decline in the 1980s would be catastrophic for mountain gorillas in the long term, but our genetic analyses suggest that gorillas have been coping with small population sizes for thousands of years,” said Yali Xue, first author from the Sanger Institute. “While comparable levels of inbreeding contributed to the extinction of our relatives the Neanderthals, mountain gorillas may be more resilient. There is no reason why they should not flourish for thousands of years to come.”

No time to rest

While the genome analysis gives cause for optimism, mountain gorillas are still vulnerable.

“The population now is robust and growing,” Cranfield said. “However if you think of 880 individuals as all that’s left in the world, that’s still a very tiny population. It would only take a big natural disaster or disease outbreak to lower those numbers significantly. So although this is a good-news story, I don’t think we want to rest on our laurels.”

Scientists hope the detailed, whole-genome sequence data gathered through this research will aid conservation efforts. Now that a genome-wide map of genetic differences between populations is available, it will be possible to identify the origins of gorillas that have been illegally captured or killed. This will enable more gorillas to be returned to the wild and make it easier to bring prosecutions against those who poach gorillas for souvenirs and bush meat.

The research was funded by the Royal Society, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, National Institute of Health, European Research Council, Cardiff University, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Other co-authoring institutions include the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva, University of Washington, University of Cambridge, University of Copenhagen, Cardiff University, University of Bologna, Copenhagen Zoo, Rwanda Development Board, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Centro Nacional De Analisis Genomico.

Conservation efforts to protect mountain gorilla conservation have been led by the Rwanda Development Board, The Ugandan Wildlife Authority, The Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, organizations like the Gorilla Doctors, and supported by tourists keen to see the gorillas made famous by primatologist Dian Fossey.

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Newborn foals may offer clues to autism


Common link, researchers suggest, may be abnormal levels of naturally occurring neurosteroids.

Veterinary researchers at the University of California, Davis, are teaming up with their colleagues in human medicine to investigate a troubling disorder in newborn horses and are exploring possible connections to childhood autism. The common link, the researchers suggest, may be abnormal levels of naturally occurring neurosteroids.

The horse disorder, known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome, has puzzled horse owners and veterinarians for a century. Foals affected by the disorder seem detached, fail to recognize their mothers and have no interest in nursing.

“The behavioral abnormalities in these foals seem to resemble some of the symptoms in children with autism,” said John Madigan, a UC Davis veterinary professor and expert in equine neonatal health.

The maladjustment syndrome in foals also caught the attention of Isaac Pessah, a professor of molecular biosciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a faculty member of the UC Davis MIND Institute, who investigates environmental factors that may play a role in the development of autism in children.

“There are thousands of potential causes for autism, but the one thing that all autistic children have in common is that they are detached,” Pessah said

Madigan, Pessah and other researchers in veterinary and human medicine recently formed a joint research group and secured funding to investigate links between the two conditions.

(See news feature story. A press kit, including video b-roll and high-resolution still images, is available.)

Maladjusted foal syndrome

In newborn foals, neonatal maladjustment syndrome, or dummy foal syndrome, occurs in 3 to 5 percent of live births. With around-the-clock bottle or tube feeding plus intensive care in a veterinary clinic for up to a week or 10 days, 80 percent of the foals recover. But for horse owners, that level of care is grueling and costly.

For years, the syndrome has been attributed to hypoxia — insufficient oxygen during the birthing process. Madigan and UC Davis veterinary neurologist Monica Aleman began sleuthing around for other potential causes, however, noting that hypoxia usually causes serious, permanent damage, while most foals with the maladjustment syndrome survive with no lingering health problems.

One of their prime suspects was a group of naturally occurring neurosteroids, which are key to sustaining pregnancies in horses, especially in keeping the foal “quiet” before birth.

Foals remain quiet in the womb

“Foals don’t gallop in utero,” Madigan is fond of saying, pointing out the dangers to the mare if a four-legged, hoofed fetus were to suddenly become active in the womb. The prenatal calm is made possible, he explains, by neurosteroids that act as sedatives for the unborn foal.

However, immediately after birth, the infant horse must make an equally important transition to consciousness. In nature, a baby horse would be easy prey for many natural enemies, so the foal must be ready to run just a few hours after it is born.

In short, somewhere between the time a foal enters the birth canal and the moment it emerges from the womb, a biochemical “on switch” must be flicked that enables the foal to recognize the mare, nurse and become mobile. Madigan and Aleman suspect that the physical pressure of the birthing process may be that important signal.

“We believe that the pressure of the birth canal during the second stage of labor, which is supposed to last 20 to 40 minutes, is an important signal that tells the foal to quit producing the sedative neurosteroids and ‘wake up,’ ” Madigan said.

Neurosteroids persist in the bloodstream

The theory, he says, is supported by the fact that the maladjusted foal syndrome appears more frequently in horses that were delivered via cesarean section or experienced unusually rapid births. Perhaps those foals do not experience significant physical pressure to trigger the change in neurosteroids, Madigan said.

Furthermore, the research team has found for the first time that sedative neurosteroids persist, and their levels often rise, in the bloodstream of foals born with symptoms of the maladjustment syndrome. These neurosteroids are known to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and impact the central nervous system, acting on the same receptor as do sedatives and anesthetics.

The researchers also have demonstrated that maladjustment symptoms can be brought on temporarily in normal, healthy foals by administering short infusions of a neurosteroid called allopregnanolone. When the neurosteroid levels drop, the foals return to their normal state.

Foals ‘wake up’ with gentle harness pressure

Amazingly, the veterinary researchers have found that they can reduce maladjustment symptoms in foals by using several loops of a soft rope to gently squeeze the foal’s upper torso and mimic the pressure normally experienced in the birth canal. When pressure is applied with the rope, the foal lies down and appears to be asleep.

After 20 minutes — about the same time a foal would spend in the birth canal — the rope is loosened and the squeeze pressure released. In initial cases, the foals have responded well to the procedure and recovered, some rising to their feet within minutes and then bounding over to join the mare and nurse.

The researchers suspect that the pressure triggers biochemical changes in the central nervous system that are critical for transitioning the foal from a sleeplike state in the womb to wakefulness at birth.

While larger studies are underway, the researchers have presented their results at national and international meetings of equine veterinarians, and many veterinarians and clinics are treating maladjusted foals with the squeeze procedure — now called the Madigan Foal Squeeze Procedure.

Madigan cautions that, in spite of the strong observational effects, a larger, controlled clinical trial of national and international scope is now needed to reproduce those observed results and provide a better understanding of the mechanisms at work in the foals.

Foal behaviors resemble autism

The early findings have compelling implications for the health of newborn foals, and have caused the researchers to also explore possible links to autism, which includes a group of complex brain-development disorders. While the symptoms vary, these disorders are generally marked by difficulties with social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

“The concept that a disruption in the transition of fetal consciousness may be related to children with autism is intriguing,” said Pessah, noting that the behaviors seen in the maladjusted foal syndrome truly are reminiscent of those in some autistic children.

He notes that some children with autism do outgrow autistic behaviors by the time they reach their teen years. Could this be a parallel to the recovery of the foals with the maladjustment syndrome?

Investigating possible links

A new group called the Comparative Neurology Research Group, consisting of veterinarians, physicians, epidemiologists and basic-science researchers, has formed to pursue further studies in this area. Madigan is working with researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, exploring the mechanisms of post-birth transitions of consciousness related to neonatal care of infants.

Using data from the foal research, Pessah and Madigan are working with environmental epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto at the UC Davis MIND Institute to investigate neurosteroids in children with varying degrees of autism, ranging from some developmental delay to full-spectrum autism.

The researchers are exploring whether abnormal regulation of neurosteroids during the time around childbirth could be one of many factors that might contribute to autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. A recent study has reported elevated levels of neurosteroids in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Pessah and colleagues will be looking to see whether there are alterations in blood levels of certain neurosteroids that may serve as a marker for the disorder. They caution, however, that the relationship right now is just a theory that remains to be validated or disproven.

More information about this research effort.

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Million Cat Challenge aims to rescue shelter cats


UC Davis, University of Florida help launch effort to save lives of cats in animal shelters.

One million homeless and abandoned cats may get a new lease on life over the next five years thanks to the efforts of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis; the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida; and hundreds of animal shelters throughout North America.

Together, they have launched the Million Cat Challenge in an effort to dramatically reduce the loss of life among cats in animal shelters. They hope to challenge both municipal animal control facilities and private shelters of all sizes, drawing on the experience of numerous related animal-welfare organizations.

The United States alone is home to more than 13,600 animal shelters, which annually receive about 7.6 million companion animals, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Approximately 3.4 million of those animals are cats, and 1.3 million of the cats are euthanized each year.

The newly launched challenge is designed to dramatically decrease those numbers by helping animal shelters implement one or more of five key initiatives, which offer every shelter, in every community, practical choices to reduce euthanasia and increase live outcomes for shelter cats.

“Participating shelters can focus on one, some or all of the initiatives, depending on what’s right for their organization and community,” said Kate Hurley, a professor in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and director of UC Davis’ Koret Shelter Medicine program.

“We welcome the help and participation of everyone who wants to find new approaches to saving cats’ lives,” Hurley said.

The five initiatives for the Million Cat Challenge are:

  • Finding alternatives that will keep cats in homes or the community rather than in shelters;
  • Managing admission to correspond with a shelter’s ability to provide safe, humane care;
  • Matching the number of cats in a shelter at any given time with that shelter’s capacity to assure the animals’ welfare;
  • Removing barriers to adoption such as cost, processing and location; and
  • Returning to the field — rather than euthanizing — healthy, un-owned cats, once they have been sterilized and vaccinated.

More details on the five initiatives and the Million Cat Challenge.

Resources available to shelters, organizations and individuals participating in the challenge include a private online forum that provides support from their peers and shelter veterinarians, and a website with articles, forms, case studies, webinars and more. “We expect some of the most valuable information each shelter will get will come from the other participating shelters,” said Julie Levy, the Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “This effort is based on collaboration and the sharing of resources.

More information about the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis, and the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program.

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Donations needed to help dogs, cats of the homeless


Supports Mercer Clinic Holiday Pet Basket program.

Help is welcomed this holiday season to help take the chill out of life on the streets for the dogs and cats of area homeless people.

For the 19th year, staff volunteers at UC Davis’ William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital are gathering monetary donations to help fill 130 holiday-wrapped boxes with toys, treats, food and pet-care products. The holiday pet baskets will be distributed on Saturday, Dec. 13, to pet owners attending the monthly Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the homeless in Sacramento.

The Holiday Pet Basket program also is raising funds for the fourth year to provide sweaters and coats to help these pets survive the winter weather.

“The Holiday Pet Baskets are a much appreciated gift to these very special pets that deserve a happy holiday, too,” said Eileen Samitz, who coordinates the holiday basket program. “However, we also recognize the essential need for warm sweaters and coats, particularly for the smaller or older pets, which have a far harder time enduring the cold winter temperatures, especially at night.”

Checks to support the Holiday Pet Baskets and purchase of pet coats and sweaters may be made payable to the UC Regents – Mercer Holiday Pet Baskets and mailed to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Office of the Dean, P.O. Box 1167, Davis, CA 95617-1167, Attn: Mercer Holiday Pet Baskets.

Online donations also can be made at: http://bit.ly/189XBde by choosing the “Mercer Clinic Holiday Pet Baskets” option.

More information about how to help the Mercer Holiday Pet Basket program can be obtained from coordinator Eileen Samitz (evenings and weekends) at (530) 756-5165 and emsamitz@ucdavis.edu or from the Mercer Clinic website and photo gallery at www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/clubs/mercer.

About the Mercer Clinic

Since 1992, the Mercer Clinic has provided the pets of homeless individuals with basic veterinary care, access to emergency care and pet food — all free of charge. The clinic is open on the second Saturday of each month, staffed by veterinary faculty and practitioners who volunteer their time and supervise the veterinary students, who run the clinic. The students gain valuable experience as they apply their studies and work alongside veterinarians to learn veterinary responsibilities and client communication skills.

In addition to improving the lives of the pets of the homeless, the Mercer Clinic works to reduce pet overpopulation by arranging for free vaccinations as well as spay and neuter surgeries for the animals.

Mercer Clinic takes place at Loaves & Fishes, 1321 West C St., Sacramento. The clinic has received the American Veterinary Medical Association Humane Award and the Sacramento SPCA “Humane-itarian” award for its work with this special population of animal companions.

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UC Davis awarded $100M to lead program to predict, prevent pandemic threats


Second phase of program will help attack problems like Ebola before they start.

The PREDICT program helps detect emerging viruses that move among people, livestock and wildlife, such as this macaque in Nepal. (Photo by One Health Institute, UC Davis)

The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded up to $100 million for the second phase of the PREDICT project based at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. PREDICT is part of the Emerging Pandemic Threats, or EPT, program — an unprecedented international campaign to rapidly detect and respond to emerging viruses such as Ebola and SARS that move among people, wildlife and livestock.

PREDICT is managed by the school’s One Health Institute. The new award is one of the largest extramurally funded projects in UC Davis history.

“PREDICT and its partners have enabled a platform for effective collaboration across disciplines and geographic borders to promote global health problem solving,” said Jonna Mazet, director of the One Health Institute and principal investigator of the new award. “We can now attack problems, like Ebola, before they start — reducing fear and improving response and control.”

The award for the PREDICT project opens a second phase for the EPT program. Building on its long-standing efforts in disease surveillance and response, USAID is developing multiple initiatives to help prepare the world for emerging infectious diseases like pandemic influenza, SARS and Ebola. Other partners within USAID’s EPT program include the PREPAREDNESS & RESPONSE and ONE HEALTH WORKFORCE projects, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization.

Building on success

For the past five years, the One Health Institute has led a global consortium of implementing partners in conducting pathogen surveillance, viral discovery and global health capacity strengthening in more than 20 countries. In that time, the PREDICT team:

  • Equipped, supplied and trained staff in 32 diagnostic laboratories around the world to safely and properly process and test wildlife samples for viruses of pathogenic potential.
  • Trained 2,500 government personnel, physicians, veterinarians, resource managers, laboratory technicians, hunters and students in biosafety, surveillance, laboratory techniques and outbreak investigations.
  • Discovered more than 800 novel viruses at high-risk pathogen transmission interfaces.
  • Responded to 24 disease outbreaks, including multiple Ebola outbreaks in central Africa.

The new award will build on the success of the first phase of PREDICT, funded in 2009. In collaboration with other U.S. government, international and host country partners, it will continue to strengthen health capacity and to intensify pathogen surveillance and risk assessment activities in geographic areas and animal-human interfaces identified as high-risk for the emergence and spread of disease.

Ebola response

Tragically, the world is currently responding to the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The extreme challenges faced in this response are amplified by the lack of public knowledge on the virus and its potential hosts and transmission. Unfortunately, the countries in West Africa were not expecting or prepared for this epidemic, primarily because there was previously no evidence that the Ebola virus was present in that region of Africa.

In contrast, during a separate Ebola outbreak in this same time period in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the PREDICT team and other partners were actively engaged with the government and inserted into the public health infrastructure, sick individuals were detected much more quickly. Samples were tested and control measures implemented all within just days of the first signs of illness. The rapid response and significantly reduced death toll in DRC illustrate what can be achieved when a One Health workforce is trained, employed and able to be activated in the face of extreme health challenges.

In this second and new phase, PREDICT will continue to focus surveillance on viral families of epidemic and pandemic potential. These include coronaviruses, the viral family to which SARS and MERS belong, influenza viruses, and filoviruses, such as Ebola.

This second phase also will increase focus on the effects of human behavior and other drivers for disease emergence and spread, with a focus on livestock and people living in high-risk areas for disease spillover and transmission. By working with social and behavioral scientists in a transdisciplinary approach, PREDICT will integrate virus detection with investigations of human-animal interactions and the social and cultural reasons for those interactions. This One Health approach is designed to improve our understanding of the dynamics of zoonotic disease spillover, evolution, amplification and spread in order to inform future prevention and control measures.

Identifying and controlling emerging diseases

The One Health Institute will execute the project in a coordinated consortium with EcoHealth Alliance, Metabiota, Smithsonian Institution and the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with valued technical partners at Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, HealthMap at Boston Children’s Hospital, International Society for Infectious Disease, and UC San Francisco’s Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center.

“Our work has shown that emerging diseases are on the rise and represent a growing threat to our health, our economies, and our global security,’ said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a partner in the PREDICT consortium. “This next phase of funding allows us to identify the activities that cause diseases to emerge in high-risk disease ‘hotspots’ so that we can minimize the impacts of a new virus spilling over and infecting people.”

The consortium will continue to work closely with partner organizations in each country, as well as with a network of laboratories, universities, government ministries and agencies in these global hotspots. PREDICT is engaged in the Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia regions, working in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam, along with a new focus in West Africa in response to the Ebola outbreak.

The consortium is united by its belief in the One Health approach, which employs the knowledge that the health of animals, people and the environment are inextricably linked to solve global health problems.

“The new funding for PREDICT will allow our One Health Institute investigators and their partners to continue to identify pandemic threats and build capacity in developing regions worldwide,” said Mazet. “The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has an extensive history of excellence in public health programs that address societal needs. This new funding will ensure our research teams’ continued contributions to enhance capabilities to prevent future pandemics.”

“Attempts to date to control deadly viruses have been almost entirely reactionary due to structural and technological limitations,” Mazet said. “The world is now poised to be able to identify the key processes influencing the evolution, spillover, amplification and spread of pathogen threats in order to halt them at their source.”

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Performance horse management survey seeks participants


UC Davis conducting online survey to ID management practice trends, help improve safety.

UC Davis is conducting a study to help identify links between performance horse management practices and musculoskeletal health, injury and performance. (Photo by Karin Higgins, UC Davis)

The Center for Equine Health at UC Davis is seeking input from horse owners, trainers, riders and veterinarians for an online survey regarding the management practices of all performance horse disciplines.

Claudia Sonder, a veterinarian and director of the Center for Equine Health, is conducting a study to help identify links between performance horse management practices and musculoskeletal health, injury and performance. The anonymous, online survey should take about 10 minutes to complete.

“Once we identify trends in management practices and correlate them with health, injury and performance, we will target research to fill gaps in knowledge and establish science-based recommendations for equine athletes,” Sonder said.

The resulting research findings will help prevent injury and increase safety for equine athletes, thus benefiting horses, owners and the industry, she added.

The Center for Equine Health is a center of excellence within the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. More than 100 equine specialists from the veterinary school and the animal science department at UC Davis are involved in research studies funded in whole or in part by the center. More information about the center.

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High-quality drug testing helps protect integrity of California horse racing


Maddy Lab at UC Davis collaborates with California Horse Racing Board.

With big names like California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief taking the field for the Breeder’s Cup Classic on Nov. 1, it’s a safe bet that drug testing in American horse racing will be an ongoing topic.

Earlier this month, a Jockey Club-commissioned report highlighted the disparity in quality and consistency across the nation’s state-by-state regulatory system, causing some people in the industry to call the current system unacceptable.

That report also served as a reminder that California, in contrast, provides robust, quality drug testing for horse racing, thanks to collaboration between the Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at UC Davis and the California Horse Racing Board.

The Maddy Lab serves as the primary equine drug-testing laboratory for California’s five permanent race courses and seven seasonal fair venues. This testing is conducted to ensure that performance-altering drugs are not administered and that permitted, therapeutic medications are given properly.

California racing generates 25 percent of the national “handle,” or wagered money, for the racing industry. Unlike some states, California is able to fund its drug-testing program with a portion of the state’s wagering revenues.

“It’s a big challenge for some laboratories in this country to provide the adequate resources for rigorous drug testing,” said Scott Stanley, professor of equine chemistry at the Maddy Lab. “You need the newest equipment, highly trained staff, time and resources to develop the best anti-doping methods for detection of illegal drugs. The pari-mutuel racing industry is dependent on the confidence the betting public has in the integrity of racing.”

Named for the late Kenneth L. Maddy, a California legislator, avid horseman and supporter of veterinary education, the Maddy Lab has evolved quickly since it opened in 1999 as part of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. A staff of 16 people runs approximately 70,000 samples a year — looking for evidence of performance-enhancing and other prohibited drugs.

The laboratory is equipped to detect over 1,500 drugs in its routine testing. It was one of the first horse-racing laboratories accredited by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, based on the World Anti-Doping Association model.

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Veterinary researcher launches crowdfunding campaign


Effort to benefit dogs’ long-term health is UC Davis’ first Indiegogo campaign.

Benjamin Hart, UC Davis

A veterinary professor is the first UC Davis researcher to launch a “crowdfunding” campaign under the university’s auspices.

The campaign is on Indiegogo, the world’s leading platform for this popular and relatively new online fundraising tool. People use it to put forth all kinds of new ideas and projects, hoping to draw “crowd” support.

University Development has established a crowdfunding policy and selected Indiegogo as UC Davis’ vendor of choice, which means contributions to official UC Davis Indiegogo campaigns go through the development office — and do not count as researchers’ personal income.

Benjamin Hart, a distinguished professor emeritus in the School of Veterinary Medicine, is seeking $9,000 for the first phase of a project to benefit dogs’ long-term health, by determining the optimum age they should be when they are spayed or neutered.

Hart and his UC Davis colleagues discovered in recent studies of Labrador and golden retrievers how neutering them before the age of 6 months, which is common practice in the United States, significantly increased the occurrence of joint disorders — especially in the golden retrievers.

Now Hart wants to develop the world’s first science-based guidelines for mixed-breed puppies, so caregivers will have the information they need to make “healthy spay and neuter decisions.”

Learn more on the campaign page, which includes two videos: Hart tells how “our project will help mixed-breed dogs live a better life,” and he gives some statistics, including, “We know that roughly two out of three family dogs are of mixed breed.”

Though dog owners and veterinarians have a strong interest in the subject, the relatively small scope of the project would not meet the criteria typically required by large funding entities. So Hart and his team have turned to Indiegogo, the world’s most established crowdfunding platform and the university’s vendor of choice for a one-year pilot project.

“The Indiegogo staff has been helpful,” Hart said, “and the website for uploading the material is quite easy to use.”

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Slime-producing molecules help spread disease from cats to sea otters


Gelatinous polymers act to provide environment conducive to transmit infectious diseases.

The spread of diseases from land animals to sea otters and other marine mammals is aided and abetted by gelatinous, sticky polymers produced by seaweed, reports a research team headed by a UC Davis veterinary infectious disease expert.

These large, complex molecules form slimy biofilms and bind water-borne organic matter into larger particles, in which disease-causing micro-organisms can become embedded and introduced to the marine food chain, the researchers discovered.

Using the parasite Toxoplasma gondii as a model, they showed how these sticky polymers increase the chance that disease-causing organisms would be picked up by marine snails, which graze on kelp and are among the common foods of some endangered sea otters.

Findings from the new study will be published Oct. 8 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Discovering the role that these invisible polymers play in disease transmission in the ocean is a tremendous step forward in helping us better understand and mitigate the impacts of coastal water pollution on the health of wildlife and humans,” said lead author Karen Shapiro, a research scientist in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

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Veterinary scientists serving on the Ebola frontline


UC Davis alums working for CDC in Sierra Leone.

Kim Dodd at the entrance to the "hot lab" wearing the associated personal protective equipment.

As Sierra Leone enters a three-day, house-to-house campaign in an effort to slow the spread of Ebola virus, two veterinary scientists working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who received their Ph.D. and D.V.M. degrees from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine will stay in the field, on the front lines in battling the largest Ebola outbreak since the deadly virus was identified in 1976.

Kim Dodd, a current UC Davis combined degree student (Ph.D. ‘14, DVM ‘15), joined her mentor and UC Davis alum Brian Bird in Sierra Leone in early September. Bird (Ph.D. ’08, DVM ‘09) serves as a veterinary medical officer in the Viral Special Pathogens Branch of the CDC and is now the lead of the CDC Ebola Field-Laboratory located at an Ebola Treatment Unit in Kenema, Sierra Leone.  This field-laboratory supports the international response to this unprecedented outbreak in partnership with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international collaborators. The laboratory serves as a regional reference laboratory to provide rapid Ebola testing.

According to the latest data from the WHO, the current outbreak in West Africa encompasses five countries with more than 5,000 cases identified and 2,630 deaths to date, more people than the last 38 years combined. Veterinary scientists such as Dodd and Bird comprise a critical role in conducting the laboratory testing to identify cases so that rapid tracing of patient-contacts can begin and to reduce the transmission of Ebola within the population.

Bird and the CDC stress the importance of early and rapid testing, as the initial clinical signs of Ebola virus infection can be nonspecific and similar to those seen with malaria, lassa fever, or other tropical diseases. It is therefore critical to rapidly identify positive cases for referral to Ebola treatment centers, and to send negative cases elsewhere for treatment and follow-up, in order to reduce community transmission and control the outbreak.

Professor James MacLachlan, their mentor at UC Davis, says veterinary researchers like Dodd and Bird with the joint skillset of a D.V.M. and Ph.D. are invaluable in dealing with One Health situations like this Ebola outbreak where emerging and zoonotic diseases have such a devastating impact on global health.

“These two remarkable individuals now are on the front line of this exceptionally brutal disease outbreak – what an example for what a veterinary degree can lead to,” he said.

In an email update, Dodd notes that “the impact of the outbreak is devastating with so many families reeling from loss of loved ones, including many young children.”

Yet there are bright moments.

“Today was a good day – a total of 20 patients (survivors) were released to their families after fully recovering and finally testing negative. I spoke to the father of a 6-year-old girl who had been in the treatment center for 21 days. When she walked out, small yet brave in a new shirt two sizes too big for her, he and I both wept.”

While Bird and Dodd’s involvement in the outbreak response highlights the value of veterinary scientists in global public health challenges, it also illustrates the need for more individuals in the public health field with training in veterinary medicine, human medicine, diagnostics, and epidemiology to support international One Health efforts.

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Solving the mystery of bluetongue livestock disease


UC Davis discovery could help predict occurrence of the disease, develop controls for it.

The bluetongue virus, which causes a serious disease that costs the cattle and sheep industries in the United States an estimated $125 million annually, manages to survive the winter by reproducing in the insect that transmits it, report veterinary scientists at the University of California, Davis.

The findings solve a century-old mystery and are particularly significant as global climate change brings more moderate winter temperatures around the world.  The new study appears today (Sept. 12) in the journal PLOS ONE.

“By conducting this epidemiological study on a commercial dairy farm in Northern California, we were able to demonstrate that the virus overwinters in female midges that had fed on an infected animal during the previous season,” said lead author Christie Mayo, a veterinarian and postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

“This discovery has important ramifications for predicting the occurrence of bluetongue in livestock and, we hope, for eventually developing controls for the disease,” said co-author James MacLachlan, a UC Davis veterinary professor and viral disease expert.

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Chicken gene provides insight on craniofacial birth defects


UC Davis findings significant for humans as well as poultry and livestock.

These chicks are part of UC Davis' living library of poultry and avian genetics, which includes the talpid lines examined in this study. (Photo by Mary Delany, UC Davis)

Each year, thousands of babies are born in the U.S. with craniofacial defects, from cleft lips and palates to more severe abnormalities of the face or head. Now new discoveries in chicken genetics and biology are shedding light on the basis of these abnormalities in both birds and humans.

The work, by a team including UC Davis animal science professor Mary Delany, was made possible by information from the chicken genome sequence and a stock of rare chicken lines kept at UC Davis. The findings appear in the August issue of the journal Development.

The researchers focused on a mutation of the gene named talpid2, known to be associated with a number of congenital abnormalities, including limb malformations and cleft lip or palate.

They found that talpid2 — like other limb and craniofacial mutations found in both humans and chickens — is related to the malfunction of “cilia,” tiny, hairlike structures on the surface of cells of the body.

Cilia play a vital role in passing along signals during development. When a gene mutation interferes with the normal structure and function of the cilia, it sets off a chain reaction of molecular miscues that result in physical abnormalities, in chickens or in people.

“Now that this new information is available, the talpid2 mutation can be expanded as a model for studying similar congenital abnormalities in humans including oral-facial defects, which affect many people around the world,” said Delany, who also serves as executive associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Delany said that the findings also are significant for production of poultry and livestock, which are likewise vulnerable to genetic mutations that cause similar physical abnormalities.

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