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Army farm helping in fight against bioterrorism

Army News Service

Release Date: 3/24/2004

By Karen Fleming-Michael

FORT DETRICK, Md. (Army News Service, March 24, 2004) -- The farm runs like most agrarian ventures: its workers muck stalls, feed animals, grow hay and bale it when the weather cooperates. But this farm, dubbed the Large Animal Research Facility, is home to valuable assets in the fight against bioterrorism.

Ten of the farm's goats are currently enrolled in a homeland defense program that harvests antibodies for tests to rapidly detect the top 10 biothreat agents.

"The reason for the rapid diagnostic test is because some of the agents that are used, you don't want to be messing around with them, especially if you need to get (a patient) on treatment or decontaminate them," Maj. Len Murray said.

The goats get a shot each month so they will produce the antibodies for the tests.

"They're in no danger of getting the diseases they're producing antibodies for," said Murray, who ran a large animal vet practice in North Carolina before joining the Army. "They just receive proteins that stimulate their immune systems to make antibodies, just like humans when they get flu shots."

Murray's Southern drawl beckons the goats, sheep, geese and horses who live at the farm on Area B to come closer and get a carrot, apple or a hearty scratch from the veterinarian who claims his is one of the best jobs in the Army.

As hip hop music blares inside the barn on a brisk winter morning, veterinary technician Pfc. Reese Baker, dressed in a winter farming outfit of insulated coveralls over his uniform, helps his noncommissioned officer in charge, Spc. Edwin Picado, take blood samples from the penned goats whose antibodies will be harvested the next day.

"You learn what to wear pretty quickly if you don't want to freeze out here," farm manager of 15 years Mike Davis said of the Soldiers' unique uniforms. Wearing a NASCAR hat and the requisite tan coveralls, Davis said summertime headgear on the farm at times includes a straw hat to keep off the sun when mowing the acres of hay surrounding the farm.

A veterinary technician at the farm for more than a-year-and-a-half, Picado's grown close to the animals there. He's named several of the friendliest goats, including Becca, Pete, Leon and Uno, the male with one horn, and doesn't mind working weekends to tend to the farm's animals.

"We have people out there every day, no matter if there's snow or ice," Murray said. "We're like the postal service. Our animals have never gone one day without being cared for."

The U.S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases has operated the farm for more than 20 years.

Healthy, happy animals

In the midst of muck from melting snow in the barnyard, the goats are so clean they look more like entries in a county fair than barnyard goats.

"If you're a goat at USAMRIID, basically all you have to do is give blood every couple weeks and otherwise be treated like you're a queen," said Lt. Col. Carol Eisenhauer, chief of the Veterinary Medicine Division at USAMRIID.

Keeping the animals in top shape benefits both the animal and research results.

"If you start with a sick animal or an animal that's under a great deal of stress, you're not going to get really good research results," she said. "Our business is humane animal care and good research, hand in hand."

In fact, the division has about 70 people-veterinarians, veterinary technicians and animal caretakers -- all dedicated to caring for the farm animals as well as the institute's other animals, which include monkeys, rabbits, mice, hamsters and guinea pigs. The division's $3.2 million budget supplies the animals' food, bedding, medical supplies, cages and toys as well as salaries and training for the staff.

"I love animals and I feel strongly that I'm an animal advocate, and I feel strongly that my job is to make sure research is appropriate for the animal and that they're respected," Eisenhauer said.

Her staff and the institute's scientists regularly meet to ensure research projects involving animals comply with the regulations that govern animal research in government labs.

"Investigators have a lot of time invested in their research -- it can take 10 years to develop a vaccine -- and they know if they don't do everything right, it won't pass FDA inspection and the vaccine will never be out there to help people," she said. "The last thing they want to do ... is have a flawed study because they didn't take care of their animals properly."

The institute is accredited by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, which means the lab has met the "gold standard" for taking care of its animals, she said.

AAALAC site visitors toured the animal facilities Feb. 19 for their triennial inspection and "white glove test," that's similar to the accreditation inspections hospitals undergo. The lab also follows the rules of the Animal Welfare Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and funding institutions like the National Institutes of Health, because of grants it receives from NIH.

The barn also serves as a fully functional veterinarian office. Its medical supply room is stocked with treatments for every possible animal ailment, and its examination tables, x-ray machine, and ultrasound machine for "goats who eat anything" stand ready, even if they're not used very often, Murray said. The 10 veterinarians on staff -- three of whom are board certified as laboratory animal vets -- take care of the animals' medical needs, and outside help for cleaning horse teeth and shearing sheep visit seasonally.

A day's work

After a day of observation to make sure the 10 goats are healthy, the goats become blood donors. At the outset of the program, the veterinarians decided that pheresis -- a method of separating plasma from red blood cells and returning the red cells to the donor -- was the route to take because the program needed only the antibody-rich plasma.

"It takes about 30 days for these guys to regenerate the red blood cells if we take the whole blood. We would have ended up throwing the red blood cells away and putting the goats at risk for acute anemia crisis because of their low red cell levels. If we only take the plasma, they can regenerate the plasma and proteins in about a week," Murray said.

The pheresis machine is on-site at the farm, so the goats stay in familiar surroundings. When they enter the sanitized pheresing room, the goats are put in a suspended sling that has four leg holes for the 30-minute session.

"We've been doing this for three months, and the animals are fine. They just relax when they get in there," Murray said. "If it were traumatic for them, I can tell you that every time we went into the field to feed them or check on them, they wouldn't come up."

Kicked off in September 2003, the critical reagents program will have 50 to 80 goats when it's fully operational. Twenty-one Nubian goats recently joined the herd farm in January, and a few more will arrive in the spring.

Horse heroes

Murray's been enamored by horses since he bought his first with paper route money at age 11. One of the first things he did after arriving at USAMRIID two years ago was find the granite marker in front of the institute where the ashes of a horse named First Flight are buried. Too skittish to work funeral details at Arlington National Cemetery, the retired racehorse spent his out-to-pasture years as the chief producer of antibodies that could be used to save the life of servicemembers exposed to any of the seven deadly forms of botulism.

The thoroughbred received injections of inactivated botulism toxins to stimulate his immune system to make the antibodies that, in 1997, saved a child's life in Columbus, Ohio. Between 1978 and 1992, more than 1,600 liters of blood were collected from First Flight, and his plasma was the world's only source of heptavalent botulinum antitoxin. He died at the farm in 1999.

In addition to the marker, an indoor stall at the farm is dedicated to the horse.

"I even submitted First Flight's name in a street-naming contest for a housing area on post," Murray said.

During the first Gulf War, when there was a threat of "bot" being used against U.S. forces, production of botulism antibodies in horses was in full trot. Most of the 100 or so horses of that era were adopted out, but today five of those horses live at the farm and are still reservoirs for the antibodies.

"The horses aren't involved in any kind of active research project," Eisenhauer said. "They're just sitting out there having a happy little life."

Valuable assets

All the animals at the farm are precious commodities for medical research, and not just for USAMRIID. Sheep blood is harvested to make blood agar plates for the labs at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. Goose blood is shipped to USAMRICD for West Nile virus research.

Though gray Canada geese liberally dot the farm's fields for avian companionship, the USAMRIID gaggle of snowy-white geese are downright snobs, Murray said.

"They (the white geese) only interact with them (the Canada geese) to chase them out of the mudholes," he said. An alternative to mudholes in the spring and summer is the geese's swimming pool, located just outside the barn.

"They just have a blast in it, like a bunch of kids," Murray said.

The geese, too, act as watchdogs for the farm.

"They make a lot of noise as soon as a stranger comes up and can be quite aggressive," Eisenhauer said.

Benefits all around

Eisenhauer said animal medical research helps not just humans, but animals as well. Operations like kidney and heart transplants that were pioneered on animals for humans are now available for pets at major veterinary schools.

She saw this firsthand when her daughter needed an emergency laparoscopic appendectomy last summer.

"That would not have come about if they had not learned how to do that and develop that technique on animals," Eisenhauer said. "Ten years earlier when they developed the technique, I had the opportunity to help physicians learn how to do that when I was at Tripler (Army Medical Center). It helped to possibly save my daughter's life."

(Editor's note: Karen Fleming-Michael writes for the Fort Detrick Standard newspaper.)



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