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National Institutes of Health Fund WSU Research in Infertility in Cattle, Humans

PULLMAN, Wash. – Understanding why 25 to 30 percent of pregnancies in beef cattle are lost and developing ways to improve those odds could translate to increasing the success of human pregnancies, according to Washington State University Professor Thomas Spencer.

He along with Holly Neibergs, an animal scientist at WSU specializing in genomics, and Tom Geary, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at Miles City, Mont., have received a $1.125 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through the National Institutes of Health. It is part of a relatively new NIH grant program, “Dual Purpose with Dual Benefit: Research in Biomedicine and Agriculture Using Agriculturally Important Domestic Species.” Ahmed Tibary, large animal clinician in WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, also is a part of the team.

“Cattle and humans have the same problem,” said Spencer, who also holds the Baxter Endowed Chair in Beef Cattle Research in WSU’s Department of Animal Sciences. “There is a lot of pregnancy loss within the first two to three weeks, and about half of those have to do with problems of the uterus. It’s very difficult to get samples from early pregnant women, so working with cattle is an effective way to explore issues that affect both humans and animals.”

Over the next five years, Spencer, Neibergs and Geary will research the origins of infertility and pregnancy loss using beef cattle. The team, which will include undergraduate and graduate students at WSU, also will work to develop new therapies to diagnose, treat and prevent infertility.

Working with herds housed at Miles City, the team first will identify cattle that are easily impregnated and those that never or only occasionally get pregnant. They, then, will compare the genetic make-up of both groups with a genome-wide association study to see why.

“We’re hoping to develop genetic markers for fertility,” Spencer said. “That has tremendous implications for humans, but it also gives us a practical selection tool in cattle production. Ideally, with a simple test, we could determine at birth which cows are likely to be more fertile.”

Spencer explained that infertility is one of the largest costs in cattle production. “It is a significant problem that reduces the profitability of a herd,” he said.

For example, finding out an animal is infertile after months of feeding and caring for it means not only the loss of those input costs, but also the cost of purchasing a new animal. The average cost of replacing a dairy heifer is approximately $1,500, and up to $1,000 to replace a beef heifer.

In addition to identifying genetic markers, the team also will work to identify biomarkers that could be used in clinical settings, such as current amniocentesis technology used for early detection of certain birth defects.

“For example, what if we discover a certain protein in the uterus that correlates with fertility or infertility,” Spencer said. “Developing that into a test would be a truly translational outcome, the kind of bench to bedside results that NIH is after.”

More information about Spencer’s work and the project is available at www.ansci.wsu.edu/people/spencer/faculty.aspx .

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