June 15, 2004


 Johne's disease, PRRS projects win funding


Multimillion-dollar CAP grants awarded for multi-institutional research

Posted June 1, 2004

Johne's disease and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome together cause more than $800 million a year in losses to U.S. agriculture and the food-consuming public, according to the Department of Agriculture.

To control and eliminate those diseases, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced April 14 that the USDA will contribute a total of $8.8 million to two international research collaboratives working on Johne's disease in cattle, sheep, and goats, and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome in swine.

The USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service is funding the critical research, education, and extension activities needed to develop practical applications against Johne's and PRRS. The CSREES named the University of Minnesota as the lead research institution on the grants.

Joseph J. Jen, USDA undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics, said the project collaborators include more than a hundred scientists and education experts from two dozen institutions in 20 states, and experts in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

In 2003, CSREES issued a broad call for research proposals on PRRS, avian influenza, and Johne's disease. Its intent was to select a single proposal relating to one of those diseases and fund it at $4 million over four years. Given the importance of the diseases to animal agriculture and the outstanding nature of the scientific teams assembled and the research proposed, the agency instead funded two of the proposals at that level.

Historically, CSREES has awarded focused, discipline-specific grants to principal investigators at single institutions. But Coordinated Agricultural Project, or CAP, grants such as those given for Johne's and PRRS are targeted to specific agricultural issues and are multidisciplinary and multi-institutional in nature. They were established as part of the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program that CSREES administers.

Dean Jeffrey Klausner of the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine noted that each of the small grants the USDA has typically awarded has resulted in "small progress." In contrast, he said, "These (CAP) grants are interdisciplinary, so we now have the best of the best of faculty from many disciplines across many universities mobilized to work on these two very significant diseases in the U.S.

University of Minnesota College of Veterinary MedicinePorkBoard PRRS informationwww.jdip.org"So, the likelihood of breakthroughs and significant progress in these diseases is a real possibility, much more so than with the previous method of giving out the NRI money."

It was on recommendation of the AVMA Council on Research, of which Dr. Klausner is a member, that the Executive Board in April directed staff to send a letter to Secretary Veneman, encouraging her to continue supporting CAP programs. Increased funding of these large-scale research initiatives is designed to translate new scientific knowledge into tangible benefits for U.S. agriculture.

The dean believes one reason U of M was chosen as lead institution is its record of forming successful consortiums that get things done. "The University of Minnesota has a long history of being very collaborative and working well with other universities, the private sector, and governmental agencies," Dr. Klausner said.

The Johne's disease grant
The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences urged the USDA to designate Johne's disease a high-priority problem and allocate substantial resources to its study and prevention, given the economic impact of the disease and its possible link with Crohn's disease in humans.

Dr. Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology at the U of M Medical School and director of the university's Biomedical Genomics Center, will lead the Johne's project. The research goals include understanding how Johne's disease is transmitted, developing diagnostic tools to track the disease in herds, studying how Johne's progresses, and developing a vaccine or methods of boosting herd immunity.

In previous studies funded by the USDA, Dr. Kapur collaborated with an Agriculture Department colleague to sequence the genome of the bacterium. His interest stems from a strong desire to understand how the organism causes disease in the host. The researchers quickly recognized that much is unknown about the organism's basic biology and how it causes disease. The need for a multidisciplinary approach to address those issues also became apparent.

"Our goal was to identify the unmet needs in Johne's disease research, education, and extension," Dr. Kapur explained, "and use this information to develop a comprehensive plan to address these needs by bringing together a multidisciplinary team that would be able to investigate this organism and the disease in the most cost-effective and resource-efficient manner."

The day-to-day activities of this program, known as the Johne's Disease Integrated Program, will be coordinated by an administrative core located at the University of Minnesota. Strategic coordination across programmatic areas as well as priority setting for the research, education, and extension efforts will be provided by a steering committee and an external advisory board that has been assembled to ensure that the research activities within JDIP are coordinated with related activities, including those outside the United States.

A mechanism called a "translational pipeline" was created to ensure that important research findings will be quickly brought to the field, beginning with any discoveries at the basic science stage. Dr. Kapur said, "We anticipate that well before the project is completed, we will be able to develop practical solutions to major problems associated with Johne's disease."

Practitioner involvement in this project will include creating an extensive education program, providing access to resources, and identifying management practices that vary between herds or farms.

"This has been an absolutely wonderful opportunity," Dr. Kapur said, "to bring a very large community of scientists, practitioners, and individuals from the dairy industry together to attack a problem that has plagued us for a long time."

The PRRS grant
The National Pork Board, which represents U.S. swine producers, in 2002 identified PRRS as the most serious infectious disease facing pork producers. The PRRS project was proposed by the North Central Multi-State Research Committee NC-229, which fosters interaction between PRRS researchers at 13 land grant universities. Michael Murtaugh, PhD, a professor at the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine, represents the U of M in NC-229 and is director of the CAP project.

With the grant, NC-229 created a work plan to help the industry pursue imaginative solutions to PRRS. Researchers will work to better understand how PPRS virus arrives on a farm, how it spreads among pigs, and how pigs resist infection. Other goals are to develop better diagnostic tools to track the virus and measure herd immunity. Once those elements are in place, the researchers can begin evaluating disease elimination strategies in the field.

In North America, the PRRS virus was discovered by Dr. Jim Collins at U of M, who currently directs the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Dr. Murtaugh has been involved in PRRS research at the college for more than 10 years. He was one of the first to characterize genetic variations in the virus, was the first to describe recombination in the virus, and is heavily involved in characterizing the immune response that underlies resistance to infection. There are station representatives from the 13 participating NC-229 institutions, and he is Minnesota's.

An unusual feature of this integrated program is that projects will be funded on the basis of peer review for scientific quality. In mid-May, NC-229 met to review comments from an external scientific advisory board that peer-reviewed the 17 initial proposals submitted for funding this first year. That process will be repeated in each of the four years.

"There is a very high priority on effective communication of research findings," Dr. Murtaugh said, meaning from beginning to end. "Our stated goal is elimination of PRRS from the U.S."

Eliminating PRRS nationwide is unlikely to occur during the four-year span of the grant, given the unique nature of the virus, he said. But he believes it is a reasonable expectation to have testable projects in place within two years, and to achieve regional elimination of the virus within four years.

"It's exciting for me to be involved with this group of scientists and educators on this project," Dr. Murtaugh said. "They are highly competitive, energetic, skilled, and passionate about solving the problem of PRRS. It is a testament to their commitment to helping farmer families and the swine industry that they came together on this project.

"This is a group of people who believe in the land grant university mission of research, education, and outreach, and who practice what they preach."