The K-State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab is not just an elaborate classroom in which students learn, it is a research facility with dedicated workers whose projects have implications for people worldwide.
“Really the conceptual basis of doing this work is this concept of one medicine,” said Bob Rowland, professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology. “This is sort of a recent concept that’s been laid out within the veterinary and human medical fields. It’s the idea that we can find these commonalities between human and animal medicine, and we should exploit them, and one area where they really come together is infectious diseases.”
With the recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus, one development in particular enables scientists to test populations instead of individuals.
“Especially now, you think, in your situation, here at this school, how do we know what is going on with this virus?” Rowland said. “The only way we know is to find sick students, but we want to get ahead of the curve and be able to sample everybody and be able to ask the question – have you ever been exposed to it, are you naive to the virus, etc., etc.”
While researchers in the lab work to track infectious diseases in pigs, some of the techniques can be applied to people as well. Rowland said the lab works with food animals and populations in areas concerning infectious disease. He explained that 20 or 30 years ago, if farmers had an animal that was sick, they would bring it in to the K-State lab for testing.
“These days, we don’t look at individual animals anymore; we look at populations, and so this is kind of a change in how we approached diagnostics,” Rowland said. “We think more in terms of disease surveillance and in profiling in large populations of animals. Part of that is we have to have a way in which we sample those populations.”
Because more than 1,500 pigs are subjects in the study, lots of “people power,” as Rowland called it, is necessary. This is where undergraduate students, particularly pre-veterinary majors, get involved.
Jessica Otradovec, sophomore in animal sciences and industry, is one of these students. She has been working for the lab for almost a year now.
“It’s kind of fun, gets us out of the laboratory, get to go outside and do some hard work,” Otradovec said. “We go into the barn and we have to change into Tyvek, which is kind of like paper coveralls in a way, and then gloves and masks just so everything’s sanitary because you don’t want to spread anything that you have to the pigs.”
The diagnostic method being developed for pigs centers on throwing a rope into a pen full of about 15 pigs. The pigs chew on the rope, which accumulates their saliva.
Then the researchers remove the rope, cut off the ends and put the pieces of the rope into a bag to bring back to the lab, where the ropes are wrung out into individual containers.
“We can take that rope and we can find things such as viral agents,” Rowland said. “We can detect those in oral fluids; we can also detect antibodies. We can also determine whether that pig has been exposed to some type of disease agent.”
In other words, the tests tell whether an animal has been or is affected by the virus, whether the virus is residing in the animal but not harming it, whether the animal has merely been exposed or whether it has not.
This extra information could be extremely beneficial in such a setting as a college campus, where many people come into contact within close quarters like classrooms or apartment buildings.
Juergen Richt, a Board of Regents distinguished professor in the College of Veterinary Science, is also doing research on the H1N1 virus. He said the logic behind the research is quite straightforward.
“What are the vaccines we’ve produced in the past, and how well do they work with this virus?” Richt said.
Richt said he hopes the eventual development of a vaccine for H1N1 in pigs can be translated to the creation of a vaccine for humans.