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April 30, 2009 — Dwindling federal funding
jeopardizes important animal and biomedical research, together with the
institutional research programs that focus on them, a group of Michigan
State University scientists warn.
The alarm was sounded in the journal Science by MSU
researchers James Ireland, George Smith, Jose Cibelli and five
colleagues from other institutions. It comes just as the landmark
sequencing of the domestic cattle genome is reported in the same issue.
Only $32 million of the $88 billion 2007 U.S. Department of
Agriculture budget went toward competitive farm animal research grants,
the group wrote. The proportion of the National Institutes of Health
budget for extramural support of human health research is more than 900
times larger, they said, while U.S. livestock and poultry sales exceed
$132 billion annually.
Animal science programs are withering at American institutions as a
consequence, they warned. Not only are certain farm animal species
themselves facing threats -- poultry in particular face loss of breed
genetic diversity – but human health studies might also suffer from
lack of funding for large-animal research.
Seventeen Nobel laureates have used farm animals as research models,
they wrote, and new information on animal genetics – such as the bovine
genome sequence reported today – promise new insights into gene
function as well as genetic and environmental influences on animal
production and human disease.
While more difficult and costly to maintain, farm animals are often
better research subjects than rats and mice, Ireland said, and size
often does matter. Chickens contract hard-to-detect ovarian cancer as
humans do, for example, and pigs are highly suitable for obesity,
cardiovascular and alcohol consumption research.
"The cow is an excellent model for studies on reproduction in the
human," Ireland said, "because it's one of the few species that
actually has follicular growth dynamics very similar to what takes
place in humans."
Private interests continue to fund agricultural research and
development, they noted, but "such funds are highly focused on
commercial interests and not on basic research."
Ireland and colleagues want increased federal consideration for
large-animal models in grant awards and for establishment of dedicated
research centers. Agriculture and veterinary schools also should
recruit "nontraditional faculty" prepared to interact with the broader
life-sciences community, they wrote, to seek National Institutes of
Health funding and help break barriers that isolate agricultural
Research conducted by Ireland, Smith and Cibelli is supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.
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