In Minnesota, animal diseases are a looming threat. A recent outbreak of avian flu has already cost the state an estimated $310 million, and future outbreaks of other diseases could jeopardize still more of the state’s livestock. At the end of 2012, livestock values totaled $3.78 billion across the state, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
At the University of Minnesota, researchers are forming a new approach to curbing contagious animal diseases and the threat they pose to Minnesota’s economy. The project — referred to as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for Minnesota Advancement, or STEMMA — is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.
The comprehensive approach of this project includes developing better technology for quickly and accurately diagnosing illnesses, better modeling to predict how the illnesses spread within and between herds of animals, and outreach efforts to educate the next generation of farmers, environmentalists and veterinary experts. The findings will inform policies that can help Minnesota react to and contain outbreaks faster, limiting the economic damage caused by these pathogens. Ultimately, researchers aim to develop a system for handling animal diseases that will promote the strength of Minnesota’s economy, protect its environment and meet the food supply needs of its people.
“During a disease outbreak, having the right information at the right time is crucial,” said Andres Perez, Ph.D., associate professor of veterinary population medicine with the College of Veterinary Sciences. “Enhancing our diagnostics, analytical technologies and educational outreach will allow us to be better equipped for ongoing and future outbreaks so that we can quickly and intelligently react to growing threats.”
To begin, the project will focus on two specific diseases that currently threaten the state’s food and agriculture industry. The first, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), is a highly infectious disease that spreads between pigs both through bodily fluids and through the air at a distance of up to six miles. PRRS can appear as blue spots on pigs, and can result in serious respiratory and reproductive problems. (In 1991, U of M scientists developed a PRRS vaccine that is now one of the highest selling veterinary vaccines in the world.)
The second disease is viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), which infects both saltwater and freshwater fish and spreads between bodies of water when fish migrate or when infected bait or equipment is carried from one body of water to another. The disease causes fish to bleed all across their bodies and within internal organs, and is known to be highly deadly in more than a dozen species of fish, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
These two diseases — one focused on livestock and the other on wildlife — will serve as “prototypes” to demonstrate how the researchers’ system of curbing diseases works, Perez said. While neither disease directly harms humans, preventing their spread will limit the severe harm to regional economies and the impact to the food supply.
A handheld diagnostic solution
Jian-Ping Wang, Ph.D., a distinguished McKnight University Professor of electrical and computer engineering with the College of Science and Engineering, is currently developing a handheld diagnostic tool that will allow farmers to quickly and efficiently detect diseases in their livestock.
Right now, farmers submit fluid samples from their livestock for testing to labs like the U’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. There scientists examine the sample for traces of a given disease, like PRRS, and report back to the farmers. While accurate, the process takes time, and the disease is often present for several weeks before scientists can detect it. Each passing moment gives existing cases of the disease a chance to spread further among their herd and sicken or kill more pigs.
Wang is working on a low-cost device called a spintronic biosensor that farmers can use on location without any specialized training. Spintronic devices operate on the “spin” of an electron, rather than its charge. Using a sample of an animal’s bodily fluid, the device will be able to detect even very small traces of diseases by their “biomarkers” — the microscopic calling cards that indicate a disease is present even before symptoms start to appear. The sensor would allow farmers to spot and react to diseases in their herds before the infection has time to spread to a greater portion of the livestock.
In the past, Wang had developed biosensor technology for detecting diseases like cancers in humans and heavy metals in water. Creating a similar device for animals poses a unique challenge, he said, as treatments must be even more cost efficient to be feasible for farmers to use.
“For the first time, we are combining these highly sensitive magnetic biosensors with areas of opportunity in agricultural disease detection,” he said. “If this works, it will be very useful not only for Minnesota and its agriculture industry, but for farmers across the nation and the world. The challenge motivates me and my group to reach the next level and advance this technology even further.”
Modeling the spread of disease
Tackling a challenge as widespread as animal diseases requires the combined expertise of researchers from many fields of study. Experts from the U’s School of Public Health, Water Resources Center, National Center for Food Protection and Defense and Informatics Institute are coming together to help improve how researchers understand disease transmission. New disease models will be formulated with Minnesota-specific conditions and locations and will incorporate data from empirical and laboratory sources allowing for more comprehensive and accurate predictions that will demonstrate how diseases could spread between farms over extended periods of time. In addition to its usefulness for the agriculture industry, the data will also inform public policy that addresses the impact of these illnesses on the economy and the food supply.
Meanwhile, the project’s outreach and education efforts will focus on helping a new generation of veterinary and agriculture professionals understand how to restrict the spread of outbreaks and provide a foundation for future innovations in disease control. For example, researchers are developing an interactive simulator that will present veterinary students and practitioners with animal disease scenarios based on models of how diseases spread, forcing them to make decisions about what course of action to take, effectively preparing them for real-world situations.
While the project will initially focus on two specific diseases, Perez said these early efforts will open new doors to additional research. Other groups have come on board to contribute funding to expand the program to include other diseases, such as influenza, foot-and-mouth disease, paratuberculosis, tuberculosis and porcine epidemic diarrhea.
“If we can prove that this can be done with PRRS and VHS, there’s really nothing to stop us from adapting it for use in curbing the spread of other threatening animal diseases,” he said.
This project is supported by MnDRIVE, a landmark partnership between the university and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of university strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.